Part 3: Fire districts look for economies

By From page A1 | March 20, 2011

Part one of this three-part series described fire district funding inequities in El Dorado County and the status of a proposed regional consolidation. Part two explored how districts across the county are struggling to get smaller, the history of the funding inequities and how salaries compare across districts. Part three looks at the west slope fire districts individually, and reports how the aid-to-fire cuts will affect the rural districts.

Stressed out west slope fire chiefs have watched their property tax revenues plummet precipitously in recent years. Surveyed for this story, they described trying to do more with less, shrinking their organization while maintaining service levels by making creative use of volunteers and seasonal workers, often supervised by their few remaining paid firefighters.

As the county aid-to-fire subsidy to six west slope rural fire districts winds down, the chiefs are girding their loins for tougher times to come.

With compensation and benefits now accounting for up to 85 percent fire district operations budgets, Diamond Springs-El Dorado Fire Chief Todd Cunningham predicted that the loss of aid-to-fire fire funds would result in staffing cuts which “will likely alter the current closest resource response concepts, which will have a drastic effect on the way fire and rescue emergencies are mitigated in the county.”

Plain spoken Rescue Fire Chief Tom Keating stated the situation more simply: “There will be less people going to fires. That’s a fact.”

The four largest fire districts on the West Slope received no aid-to-fire subsidy from the county, but all face lower tax revenues.

Diamond Springs district

Chief Cunningham mixes a staff of 17 paid firefighters with 23 volunteers to staff five fire houses.

That’s down six bodies from peak staffing, but it wasn’t enough to offset lower revenues, so firefighters, management and admin staff all voted to take an 8 percent across-the-board salary decrease, according to Cunningham.

His firefighters have a long history of working cooperatively with their district, having built headquarters Station 49 and the Firefighters Hall in Diamond Springs themselves.

The Diamond district’s roughly 24,000 residents paid $3.1 million in property taxes to the fire district in 2009, placing them third in the county behind El Dorado Hills, at $14 million and El Dorado County, at $8.3 million according to the Citigate Report.

Diamond Springs firefighters averaged almost $95,000 per year in 2009, according to the State Controller’s office, second only to El Dorado Hills firefighters.

Their captains also did well, averaging nearly $130,000 per year in 2009, again second only to El Dorado Hills captain/paramedics.

Those salaries were achieved without the benefit of a union.

District administrators have discussed consolidation with Rescue, a district that Cunningham described as having a similar culture.

El Dorado Hills

When the Proposition 13 dust settled after the June 1978 election, the El Dorado Hills Fire and Water District found itself with a county-best 17.5 percent slice of local property tax, which provided the foundation for its current fiscal well-being.

Visionary former Chief Bob Cima had a knack for timing. He instituted one of the first development fees in the state just before El Dorado Hills became home to a west-county housing boom. The development fees funded the capital equipment investments, the new stations, additional staff and equipment required to create a modern district perched on the urban-wildland interface with one foot in a rural county and the other in an affluent suburb.

The district has a history of board-level fiscal stewardship. The results speak for themselves: a $23 million reserve, $9 million of which is allocated to liabilities, such as equipment replacement and retiree medical costs.

Facing lower tax revenues, the current board is doing its best to balance the budget without cutting services or tapping into the reserve. Firefighters got no raises last year, and eliminated a couple of positions with exit incentives. The administration also streamlined, eliminating training and fire prevention captain positions.

El Dorado Hills salaries and benefits are higher at every position than their counterparts in the other West Slope fire districts, a testament to active and effective union leadership in recent years.

Personnel costs soak up 86 percent of the $15 million operating budget, but have remained relatively static over the last three years.

Overtime, however, has not. It rose to $2.3 million out of $13.5 million slated for salaries and benefits last year despite call volumes that have dropped to an average of 1.5 calls per 24-hour shift per station.

By contrast, Diamond Springs Station 49 runs approximately the same call volume from one station with a two-person engine company. El Dorado Hills runs four firefighters on each engine.

Last year’s El Dorado Hills fire budget contained over $500,000 in across-the-board, recurring annual education bonuses, all calculated as a percent of total earnings, including overtime, of which there is plenty.

Firefighters, engineers and captains all took advantage of the ample overtime and bonus opportunities in 2009. Engineer paramedics with a max salary of $96,300 averaged $140,400. A captain paramedic’s max salary was roughly $105,000, but they took home, on average $157,469.

The current union contract expires in July. Negotiations are under way for its replacement.

Cameron Park

Fire service in Cameron Park is the responsibility of the Community Services District, which outsourced it to CalFire in 1996, and has repeatedly extended the agreement, which currently runs through 2013. They did the job for $2.7 million last year, according to Battalion Chief Joe Tyler.

The Cameron Park Community Services District represents 16,331 residents. It is paying off a handsome new community center and pool, and like its sister districts, is facing a steep drop in tax revenues. It received no aid-to-fire subsidy.

The CSD is allowed to cut CalFire’s budget with 120 days notice, which it recently delivered. Chief Tyler said he’s trying to find alternatives to cutting any of his 21 firefighters.

In 2009 CalFire engineer-paramedics made an average of just over $84,000, including overtime, in Cameron Park, ranking well below neighboring engineer paramedics in El Dorado Hills: $140,000, El Dorado County: $95,000 and Georgetown: $101,000, according to the State Controller’s Office.

CalFire captain-paramedics ranked similarly, earning $92,500 per year on average, compared to El Dorado Hills: $157,500, El Dorado County: $111,000 and Rescue: $98,000.

Cameron Park’s overtime was low, $5,000 on average for engineer paramedics and $2,300 for captain-paramedics in 2009.

CalFire works a “three-on, four-off” shift schedule that yields 156 24-hour days per year, whereas the more popular “48-96” schedule (two-on, four off) yields only 120 24-hour days per year, before overtime kicks in.

Chief Tyler cites his salaries and work schedule as evidence that CalFire is a cost-effective solution for Cameron Park taxpayers.

Cameron Park also has eight active volunteers and roughly 22 trained but unpaid resident firefighters.

El Dorado County

The El Dorado County Fire Protection District is the product of a 1991 consolidation between Placerville, Pleasant Valley, Shingle Springs and Pollock Pines-Camino fire districts. Coloma-Lotus, Strawberry and the Highway 50 corridor were subsequently annexed into the district, making it the second largest fire district in the county, 281 square miles with a population of roughly 77,000, according to Chief Bruce Lacher.

The $6.3 billion assessed value of its 23,800 homes was second only to the $7.5 billion value of El Dorado Hills’ 14,200 newer and generally larger homes in 2009, according to the Citygate report. Its 86 employees work from 15 different fire stations funded by $8.3 million in property tax revenue in 2009.

County firefighter paramedics made an average of $83,276, less than El Dorado Hills and Diamond Springs, but a full notch above CalFire, Rescue, Garden Valley, Pioneer and Rescue.

Captain-paramedics took home $111,233 in 2009, and ranked similarly, according to the State Controller’s Office.

Chief Bruce Lacher reported that union negotiations are currently active, and that retirement and health benefits are being restructured to reduce cost, including lowering the retirement benefit to “two at 50.”

“The firefighters came to the table willing to talk,” he said. “We’re looking at different health plans now.”

Smaller districts

Six fire districts on the West Slope  split a total of $1.3 million in aid-to-fire subsidies annually since 2001. The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors has eliminated those subsidies as of the current fiscal year.

Rescue – The Rescue Fire Protection District is located in the center of the county, and is often on the road supplying automatic aid to its neighbors. Its 5,300 residents occupy 2,365 homes, mostly in heavily wooded large parcels, often at the end of narrow roads. They generated $891,000 in property tax revenues for the district in 2009.

Rescue also received $202,000 in aid-to-fire.

Rescue Fire Chief Tom Keating reported that he’s already down two positions, and is cutting one more on July 1. He currently has eight full-time positions, and staffs two firefighters per shift.

“After that, we have to look at service levels,” said Keating, who fought hard to attain around-the-clock paid staffing, and now sees the aid-to-fire cut taking it away.

Rescue firefighter-paramedics averaged $70,800 in 2009, according to the state controller. Captain-paramedics made $66,600 on average. Chief Keating took home $91,500.

Rescue also enjoys an active volunteer organization, currently at 25 members, that may assume an even more important role next year.

Georgetown – Chief Greg Schwab reports that his Georgetown Fire Protection District protects 1,486 homes in and around Georgetown with a population that reaches 6,000 on hot summer weekends, when the ambulance is running up and down Wentworth Springs Road to the Crystal Basin, an important recreation district 30 miles to the east.

In 2009 their property tax revenue was less than $425,000. Georgetown received $36,000 in aid-to-fire.

Georgetown has 10 paid firefighters, down from 13 a year ago, augmented by 37 volunteers that are paid for shift work.

Five full-time engineer-paramedics made an average of $100,900 in 2009, according to the state controller. The one full-time captain-paramedic made $72,000.

Georgetown and Garden Valley are considering consolidation, said Schwab.

Garden Valley – Garden Valley’s property tax revenue is comparable to Georgetown’s, but it received more aid-to-fire: $205,200.

Chief Bill Dekker reports that they’re currently making ends meet with reserve funds, and have left a secretary position vacant. They’re also relying on volunteers more. Cost-of-living and merit raises have been frozen since 2008. He also reports more use of part-timers to cover overtime shifts.

The four full-time captains listed on the state controller’s report averaged $66,600 in 2009. The highest paid engineer took home $51,900.

The loss of aid-to-fire will result in cutting two of the full-time positions, said Dekker. The one engine that’s staffed around the clock will drop to one-person staffing.

Training of all types will be scaled way back. Dekker worried about meeting current service levels, and said that his board would evaluate the district’s ability to provide mutual aid to neighboring districts.

Pioneer — The Pioneer Fire Protection District consists of a headquarters station and five volunteer stations responsible for protecting 296 square miles in the largely agricultural south central portion of the county, including Somerset, Grizzly Flat, Fair Play, and surrounding communities. Its 2,800 dwellings and 7,000 residents generated $638,000 in property taxes for their district in 2009.

The district also received $279,000 in aid-to-fire from the county.

The district staffs a mix of paid firefighters and volunteers, and now staffs an advanced life support engine with paramedics.

Chief Robert Gill reported that his district has a total of eight firefighters and paramedics, two resident firefighters, seven volunteers and active explorer and cadet programs. He’s had to lay off four part-time resident firefighters and no longer staffs Station 31 in Willows.

Without aid-to-fire, Gill said that the district would likely lose its paramedic program and half the paid staff. “I’ll be dispatching engines with just a driver,” he said.

The Pioneer fire board is currently considering a parcel tax or benefit assessment to address the shortfall.

Latrobe – The Latrobe Fire Protection District is a volunteer agency operating in the fiscal shadow of its northerly neighbor, El Dorado Hills. The district received only $118,000 in property tax revenue in 2009.

Latrobe’s aid-to-fire subsidy was $168,000.

Latrobe has a three chiefs, a captain, and 25 volunteers, all unpaid. Aid-to-fire allows him to employ four recent fire academy graduates who work 10-hour daytime shifts Monday through Friday. Evenings and weekends its up to the volunteers.

Chief Chris Couper said that his district had accumulated roughly $300,000 in reserve funds to replace aging equipment, and that it would use that to live on when aid-to-fire expires. “After that, we lose daytime coverage,” he said.

El Dorado Hills Station 87, opened in the business park in 2007, is just 7.7 miles from central Latrobe, and often provides support in Latrobe.

Mosquito – The Mosquito Fire Protection District encompasses 13 square miles with roughly 550 homes, almost all nestled into the woodsy terrain. In 2009 the district’s property tax revenue was $137,700 and received $35,000 in aid-to-fire. Its 1,235 residents already pay a West Slope high $229 per home annual assessment for fire protection, according to the Citygate Report.

Chief Bob Davis reported that he is compensated one third as chief, with two paid firefighters and over 20 volunteers. The chief could not be reached at press time to discuss the impact on the Mosquito district of the loss of aid-to-fire.

Mike Roberts

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