PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA

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Rural fire districts get fiscal ‘patch’ from county

By From page A1 | October 23, 2013

El Dorado County Supervisors agreed to give one more round of cash infusions to at least five out of eight rural fire protection districts late last month. Following a presentation by the county’s Fire Advisory Board on the “financial status” of local districts, the board adopted a plan to subsidize the agencies with up to a maximum of approximately $850,000 this year and about the same next year.

Chief Administrative Office analyst Mike Applegarth represented the county on the advisory board and delivered the good, the bad and the ugly data. Pioneer Fire Protection District in the South County is doing all right financially, Applegarth said, adding the notation that the district has closed one of its satellite stations and laid off six staff.

“Georgetown looks OK” except for the fact that it has no full-time staffed fire engine, he said, while Garden Valley, without federal grant funds would probably be in the red. “Most districts are not in danger of closing their doors in the next two years,” but unless a permanent and sustainable funding solution is found, all bets are off.

Latrobe shares considerable resources with the El Dorado Hills district, but its “expenditures are far above its revenue and its chief takes no salary or benefits from the district,” Applegarth said. “Rescue is underwater.”

Overall, the status of the eight districts shows a reduction in their staff expenses by an average of 16 percent in the past two years, Applegarth said. Fifty percent of the districts are unable to maintain safety equipment while 70 percent must rely on fire engines that are more than 25 years old. Purchase of equipment has been deferred by 90 percent of the fire districts, the slide charts noted. But it’s not enough as maintenance and equipment replacement needs continue to mount.

Each district receives a portion of the county’s property tax revenues under a complex allocation system that has favored larger, urban/suburban districts in the past. As do other special districts, the fire districts get a fraction of a piece of the whole pie that ranges from about 5 percent to nearly 18 percent, with an average of 13 to 14 percent. At one time, that average was considered adequate to maintain the rural districts in at least a static condition.

Each county fire district is governed as a special district by separate boards of directors based on the theory that a local fire department should be managed by residents of its service area. That totals 75 individually elected board members.

Since the county ended its “Aid to Fire” grant program two years ago, smaller fire districts have been increasingly burdened by rising costs and decreasing revenue. Aid to Fire was a direct draw on the county’s general fund and was always represented as complementary to a district’s budget and revenue sources, not as everyday operating funds.

Fire advisory group

A “Fire Advisory Group” was established by the Board of Supervisors and tasked with finding “a permanent solution for sustainable fire and Emergency Medical Services funding throughout all El Dorado County fire districts,” according to the Sept. 24 board agenda. Permanent and sustainable are the key concepts. If a local board of directors cannot create permanent and sustainable funding for its fire services, who can and who should? County supervisors are not united on the issue.

District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp, a longtime firefighter and department administrator suggested that if a local district is unable to guarantee adequate service, responsibility will devolve to the county.

“A minimum level of costs and services needs to be set,” Veerkamp said. “Smaller districts are not sustainable (but if we) let them fail, we’re going to hear about that … Are we going to be in the fire business? We’ll have to be at some point just for safety. We set zoning codes and growth and we owe the people public safety.”

Supervisor Ron Mikulaco, District 1, and Board Chairman Ron Briggs also asked rhetorically if the county wanted or needed to be in the “fire business.”

Disappointed

“I’m extremely disappointed,” Briggs acknowledged. “We became extremely stingy as El Dorado County, but I don’t see the same from fire district boards … They wanted their own identity, and I get that, but we’re made to look like the bad guys (if we don’t support them).”

He went on to chastise fire boards in general for not taking more drastic steps to curb costs and increase revenue. Noting that the 75 fire board directors have the power to vote to increase taxes in their districts, Briggs added, “You’re asking for $800,000, but I’m not seeing any progression from the districts, no consolidation. The county can continue to put money into the system, but the fire boards have an obligation (to be self-sustaining).”

The Citygate consulting firm conducted an extensive study of the county’s fire protection districts three years ago and generally recommended that rural districts probably needed to consider upping their local revenue collection through fees or tax increases. Pioneer district responded by assessing an annual fee of $85 per parcel, while all other districts have instituted some kind of fire service tax. The Citygate report also noted that because small districts had such limited taxable resource bases that consolidating several of them would likely simply produce a larger, poorer district. It did, however, give more than just a nod to the notion of consolidation as a longer-range solution.

Triage

Applegarth responded via e-mail to a recent request for information from the Mountain Democrat.

“Our task was to develop permanent and sustainable funding solutions for all fire and Emergency Medical Services throughout the county,” Applegarth wrote. “This is no doubt a tall order which will take some time to work through.”
Focusing initially on an analysis of short-term needs based on a report by the Commission of Collaborative Fire Departments that came to the board in April, Applegarth called the process a kind of “triage situation.”
“We wanted to ensure that the rural fire districts were stabilized before we embarked on the more complex, longer-term solutions involving consolidation of districts, or renegotiation of the share of property taxes between the county, fire and other special districts,” he explained.
Consolidation
Specific actions could include some degree of regional consolidation providing shared training and purchasing for example. Figuring out what it will cost will be the second part of Phase 2. Generating adequate revenue could require shifting the property tax base and/or reallocating the tax increment currently in place. Additional special taxes or assessments could also be part of the long range sustainability plans. Several department chiefs and district board members described the dilemma posed by the state’s implementation of fire fees within the past two years. Generally set at $150 per improved parcel within the state’s Cal Fire Service Areas, rural communities are now resisting any new assessments or taxes for fire protection, according to the local representatives, despite the fact that Cal Fire is typically not the primary emergency responder in many rural or semi-rural localities. The state fee is aimed more at fire prevention and education than at direct fire suppression.
As the hearing wound down, Briggs again noted that he was “most irked that the fire boards have not done anything toward sustainability. General Fund money to fire equals no deputy at the lake or something like that, and this constant raid on the General Fund is not good. We’ve got to have collaboration of all the districts.”
Veerkamp finally offered a motion to fund the “patch” and include a request for a “Letter of Intent” from each fire board to participate with the county in developing strategies for financial sustainability in the future. “I want to get this done once and for all and protect our people,” Veerkamp said.
The board voted unanimously to approve that motion.

Chris Daley

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