Report: G’town-Garden Valley fire merger prospects dim

By From page C6 | February 10, 2012

On Jan. 18, at the Georgetown Fire Protection District’s monthly board meeting, a “final draft report” from the joint consolidation committee of Georgetown and Garden Valley Fire was presented.

The report began by providing some background information on why the report was being made in the first place.

“In the early part of 2010, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors made several decisions that directly affected local fire district finances and operations,” states the report.

“1) The Board of Supervisors chose to reduce and then eventually eliminate additional funding to eight local fire districts in El Dorado County. Four of the eight affected agencies are in Supervisor Ron Briggs’ district (IV). They include Georgetown, Garden Valley, Rescue and Mosquito, respectively.

“2) The Board of Supervisors hired a consultant firm (Citygate) at a cost of more than $100,000 to conduct a study to evaluate the consolidation of all fire agencies within El Dorado County. This study was funded by monies from the districts that received the augmentation (Aid to Fire) funding. In the case of Garden Valley, it cost them $19,000.

“The result of the Citygate report showed, in part, that consolidation of El Dorado County fire agencies could not be operated better or cheaper. In fact, the study showed it would cost considerably more money to operate in a fully consolidated operation. There would be no savings at all. In addition, service levels could be potentially reduced due to a loss of volunteer firefighters in the rural areas.

“The report did mention the possibilities of smaller regional consolidations, which could, perhaps, if funded adequately, be successful over the long term. During the summer of 2010, the county fire chiefs had discussions with county supervisors, including Briggs, who stated they would financially support and work with the agencies to adjust AB8 tax revenues, and/or the reallocation of Proposition 172 monies.

“AB8 tax revenues specifically spell out the annual allocation of tax dollars collected. For Garden Valley, it is roughly 9 cents of every tax dollar collected, and for Georgetown it is roughly 11 cents, in their respective districts. The balance of each tax dollar goes to other public agencies such as the county, schools, water, libraries and law enforcement. The only way the AB8 rate can be adjusted is because of a consolidation. Individual agencies cannot renegotiate rates without a reorganization of multiple agencies.

“Proposition 172, Local Protection and Improvement Act of 1993, was an emergency services tax measure passed statewide by voters to offset lost revenues that were stolen (tax shifts) by the state of California. Prop. 172 is a half cent sales tax override charged to all purchases. Each county Board of Supervisors has direct control over the allocation of Prop. 172 funds. In El Dorado County, the amount collected last year was approximately $7.67 million. The law enforcement agencies in El Dorado County receive all of this money. Not one dime has been allocated to any fire agency in El Dorado County. This is not the case in most of the other counties in California. Presently, in EDC, law enforcement eats up roughly 50 percent of the county budget, annually.”

Meetings of board members, chiefs and line personnel from both Georgetown and Garden Valley fire protection districts began in September 2010 in an effort to study the financial and operational feasibility of merging the two districts into one operation. Every aspect of concerns regarding consolidating the two districts were covered over the course of 20 meetings and 18 months, with a vision of what the reorganized district would look like and how it would operate developed by the committee, which determined that it could be financially viable if the county agreed to a new tax rate for the reorganized district.

Last March the committee met with the Local Agency Formation Commission or LAFCO, which provides the framework and legal basis for moving forward on a fire district consolidation. The question of whether to consolidate remains strictly with the board members of each agency, and a simple majority could allow or deny the consolidation.

After the committee gained consensus that a consolidated fire district would be good for the citizens, committee members drafted a proposed 40-page application to LAFCO to move forward. The new tax rate as a result of AB8 negotiations, however, would have to be known before any more work was done.

In May 2011 meetings with the County CAO Teri Daly and Mike Applegarth, along with other county staff, laid out the committee work accomplished, and a plan to move forward with AB8 negotiations. Additional meetings were held with Supervisor Briggs. All of the county staff provided positive feedback, and Briggs said he would publicly support the consolidation effort at the BOS level.

After several months of no action on a proposed draft budget reflecting long-term financial costs, El Dorado staff appeared reluctant to answer questions regarding the status of the negotiations and the county’s position. It became clear to the committee that the county would not adjust the tax rate to support the consolidation.

“On Dec. 12, the committee met one last time,” states the report. “The discussion centered around the fact that without the financial support of the county, the question of consolidation was dead.  All members of the committee read and agreed to file this closing report with both boards.”

Findings of the committee stated in the report:

“1) The committee believes that consolidation of the two districts would be a positive move for keeping economies of scale and some reduction in overlapping costs and services. This is entirely based on being adequately funded.

“2) The County Board of Supervisors is poised to take away hundreds of thousands of dollars from the two agencies and more than a million (dollars) from the other fire districts in the next year.

“3) Consolidation would provide the benefits of continued local board control, a local fire chief, local service delivery of legally required pertinent services.

“4) Consolidation will not save any money. It allows that available monies are spent better by eliminating redundancy, duplication, and providing the ability to streamline some service methods.

“5) Both fire districts have great capital improvement needs, including apparatus and facilities.

“6) The county of El Dorado has substantially reduced fire district’s capabilities (mostly in Briggs’ District IV). The county Supervisors have not provided for the long-term funding as mandated by voters with Prop. 172. In fairness, fire agencies should have been receiving roughly $3 million dollars annually from that measure.

“7) The committee is aware of a sidebar discussion that has been ongoing with a sub-committee of the county fire chiefs to find some replacement of the revenues provided by the county general funds. (They find that there is no way for the proposed dollars to adequately operate fir services on the Georgetown Divide over the long run.)

“8) The Georgetown Fire District has already cut its paid engine staff by 50 percent, eliminated stipends to volunteer firefighters and inflicted staff pay cuts. (They struggle to staff engines with volunteers at night.)

“9) The Garden Valley Fire District is set to reduce its staffing by 50 percent next year and eliminate its Advanced Life Support Program. As both agencies rely heavily on each other, the reduction in services will be severe.”

Rebecca Murphy

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