Friday, April 18, 2014

Rural fire districts out of options

From page A1 | April 22, 2013 | 6 Comments

The county’s rural fire districts returned to the Board of Supervisors on April 9 with dire predictions of their life expectancy, barring jaws-of-life fiscal relief from the county.

The supervisors revived their Fire Advisory Advisory Committee, which will return to the well-studied problem of inadequate revenue streams in rural communities to support the independent fire districts currently in place.

The restaffed committee will return in eight weeks with short- and long-term funding options, capital equipment needs, potential new revenue streams, operational efficiencies, consolidation options and system-wide accountability measures.

El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts laid it on the line in a tight 20-minute presentation that recapped the labyrinthine funding history and grim outlook for the county’s rural fire and emergency services agencies, concluding that their future is in “immanent jeopardy,” and their demise would significantly impact system wide response times.

In 2009 the board terminated the aid-to-fire subsidy, which pumped between $1.3 and $1.6 million annually into eight rural fire districts with disproportionately small property tax revenues.

Last week the supervisors grumbled about fire service compensation, demanded greater fiscal accountability and asked the chiefs and the rural fire boards to once more explore all options, including consolidation, to make themselves fiscally viable.

Their comments reflected recent news stories highlighting questionable management and fiscal practices at the El Dorado County Fire District and the Garden Valley Fire District.

The supervisors acknowledged that the county’s rural fire districts fell through the cracks of a post-Proposition 13 revenue shell-game, which protected schools and law enforcement agencies through tax shifts, special taxes and exemptions, but left rural fire and EMS to fend for itself.

Roberts spoke on behalf of the county’s 13 fire districts, which organized in 2011 to explore efficiencies through collaboration, consolidation and annexation. Shared training, dispatch, prevention, purchasing and administration have improved efficiency. But annexations and consolidations have proven more vexing.

“No one wants to take on a liability,” said Roberts. “If we combine multiple agencies that are going broke we have one larger district that’s still going broke.”

Roberts seems like an unlikely messenger, since his El Dorado Hills district is the most prosperous in the system. But in a network of mutually dependent fire and EMS providers, “This affects us all,” he said.

Six rural fire districts are rapidly depleting their modest reserves and face imminent demise without an influx of revenue, Roberts continued. The resulting gaps in the automatic and mutual aid system will create longer response times, larger wildland fires and greater property destruction, he said.

The demise of rural fire districts would also make insurers even more hesitant to write homeowners’ policies in rural areas, Roberts added, a problem that has quietly grown in recent years.

Board members have heard those gloomy predictions for the last decade, and are well aware of the issue’s emotional resonance in the rural portions of the county.

The problem was well-studied in recent years, most notably in the 2010 Citygate report, an independent, in-depth analysis of the fiscal health of each fire district in the county that confirmed what the agencies themselves said, that there are no easy fixes.

The board ordered the report but never adopted it, which fire officials see as an acknowledgement of the inherent inequities in their funding mechanism.

The 1979 revenue formula enacted by Assembly Bill 8 divided the Proposition 13-mandated 1 percent property tax revenue among local agencies, including the county, based on their prior year allocations, and created legislative barriers to changing the percentages.

Since then, rural fire agencies have transformed from a collection of low-budget, bake-sale and pancake-breakfast-funded volunteer departments into a centrally dispatched network of modern emergency responders with strict training and equipment requirements.

The breakdown

El Dorado Hills Fire receives 17.5 percent of local property tax. By comparison, neighboring Latrobe gets less than 5 percent. Rescue gets less than 10 percent. Georgetown’s Fire Department receives 11.7 percent but supports hundreds of square miles of recreation areas to the east that generate more broken bones than property tax.

Aid-to-fire subsidized the eight underfunded districts to roughly a 13 percent level. The recipients were Garden Valley, Georgetown, Latrobe, Mosquito, Pioneer and Rescue on the west slope, Meeks Bay and Fallen Leaf in the Tahoe Basin.

The 2007-08 Grand Jury questioned the efficiency of the system and called for consolidation, recommending the county study the situation and stop subsidizing the underfunded fire districts, at least until they seriously consider consolidation.

Facing their own budget crisis in 2009 the supervisors spent $100,000 on the 2010 Citygate Report, and diverted funds from the ambulance system to the rural districts for two final years of aid-to-fire, with orders to figure out a way to become self-sufficient. The two years are up.

In 2011 the Mountain Democrat ran a three-part series that examined the problem. It recapped the fiscal situation in each of the six west slope districts that received aid-to-fire. Over the next few weeks we’ll revisit those districts and summarize their efforts to achieve economic viability.

The Citygate report carefully implied that rural residents might need to pay more for fire and EMS because those services cost more to deliver where they live.

Specifically, it found that consolidations would yield little direct savings in staff and equipment since rural fire districts had already cut staff and reduced coverage in many areas. It nonetheless suggested that consolidation might provide “more rational and cost-effective organizations,” and lay the groundwork for “a new funding arrangement …  which would likely require voter approval.”

Citygate thus provided rural districts political cover to propose a parcel fee, the most obvious, and perhaps the most difficult solution to their problem.

The Pioneer Fire Protection District took the hint, crafting Measure F, an $85 annual tax on developed parcels, which passed in 2011 with 77 percent approval.

But that was before Cal Fire’s 2012 fire fee, which local fire officials say has soured the public on any additional fees or taxes to support fire agencies.

Focus on the positive

Roberts steered clear of recent controversies at the county fire protection district, which despite its name, is not affiliated El Dorado County, and was not a recipient of aid-to-fire funds. Likewise, he didn’t mention Garden Valley’s well publicized troubles.

Instead he focused on the system’s accomplishments, including a 16 percent staff reduction since aid-to-fire ended in the face of a 73 percent increase in call volume since 1993.

Roberts’ district cut the fat out of its budget in 2011 by downsizing its administration and staff, cutting benefits for new hires, reducing engine company staffing and allowing one non-union position on its ambulance.

The rural districts had far less fat to cut. Half can’t keep up with maintenance on their safety equipment and 70 percent are relying on engines older than 25 years, said Roberts.

The two most logical candidates for consolidation are Garden Valley and Georgetown, just four miles apart. Members of the two districts spent 18 months hammering out a proposed consolidation measure with advice and support from Local Agency Formation Commission Executive Officer Jose Henriquez.

report to the Garden Valley Board in January 2012 on the demise of the consolidation plan states they had verbal support from District 4 Supervisor Ron Briggs.

The consolidation stalled in mid-2011 when the county failed to confirm the consolidated district’s portion of property tax revenue, according to the report. The matter didn’t come up in board discussions last week.

Speaking off the record, county officials told the Mountain Democrat that there are potental unintended consequences of cracking the archaic post-Prop 13 revenue formulas mandated by Assembly Bill 8 in 1979.

The so-called AB8 negotiations divide property tax among local agencies. When one agency gets a raise, another takes a cut.

Briggs expressed concern with the hierarchy, structure, salaries and benefits of local fire agencies. “When I see the amount of chiefs and captains …. You guys are the last of the Mohicans out there,” he said.

In an apparent comparison to how county departments reacted to economic downturn, Briggs said, “We tried to take the top heavy out … The unions realized that … we had to hold the line.”

He told the chiefs it was important that the fire boards be part of the process.

Roberts assured Briggs that the boards of all 13 districts were involved, and that significant salary and benefit reforms had been achieved.

“Our culture is not to brag about that kind of stuff, but we’ve done a lot,” he said. “We’re coming to you now because … we’re out of options.”

Garden Valley Director Mark Spaugh was elected in 2012 and co-chairs the CCFD with Mosquito Director John Moalli. He asked the supervisors to encourage local fire boards to think more globally. He also suggested that the supervisors be specific in their demands.

“We have issues where we’re defensive of our little piece,” he said. “With your input, your backing, we can go to our boards and say, ‘These are the things they’re interested in.’”

Retired firefighter Rhonda Nagle called aid-to-fire’s cost “a drop in the bucket” compared to county spending on road, bridge and trail projects “that many of us feel are overkill.”

She questioned the board’s priorities, and encouraged it to explore funding from the insurance companies themselves to keep rural fire districts alive.

District 5 Supervisor Norma Santiago reminded the fire district leadership present to be accountable.

“I don’t need to tell you all the stuff that’s out there with regard to how well or not so well these districts are financially managed,” she said. “We have a lot of people who trust us. We want to honor that.”

District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp preceded Roberts as El Dorado Hills Fire Chief and fought the same battle for the rural districts. He estimated that county wide, 20 to 25 chief positions were eliminated in the last year, and predicted that without prompt action the hard work of the districts and early successes in resource sharing would fail.

The board unanimously reinstated its Fire Advisory Council, to include supervisors Veerkamp and Ron Mikulaco, two fire chiefs, two fire board members, one county finance representative and one LAFCO representative.


Discussion | 6 comments

  • MicheleApril 22, 2013 - 7:50 am

    Come on, you guys should at least make sure the headline is edited correctly. That is just being a professional.

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  • 1036-FrankApril 22, 2013 - 9:04 am

    The "Op-it-on" is this county has a need for either a new funding source, reorganization and centralization, or Bids from Calfire for comparison as a starting point. If Moonbeam would direct his fire tax back to the counties it would be problem solved and a new funding source, the chances are slim as it was diverted back to the general fund for the most part. A new parcel tax is unlikely to pass, a reorganization might be possible and is perhaps the best logical choice for local control and keeping our local employees. My suggestion is to tax tourists as in occupancy taxes and other sources from recreation to products if a new source of revenue has to be found after reorganization.

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  • EarlApril 22, 2013 - 6:18 pm

    No department will agree to give up their fiefdom. Get over it. Consolidation offers a lot of benefit to reduce cost, increase benefit and services to most of the county. The current structure has too many chiefs and admin assistants and not enough firefighters/EMTs/Paramedics. Many of the districts are having to compromise on hiring a chief that can manage a department's mission, budget, and staff or respond to a emergency. The small departments would benefit greatly on focusing on services instead of administration. El Dorado County relies heavily on our generous volunteers. I applaud each for their time and efforts but, there is no consistency in training, expectations, operating procedures etc. across the county. A centralized administration office can focus on how to encourage, promote, train and retain our volunteers.

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  • R SmithApril 22, 2013 - 7:21 pm

    For some years now, the elected purse-holders of our county (supervisors, auditor) and a select member of the Grand Jury have been bullying the fire districts in this county. I suspect it has been an effort to bend the districts to their financial will and has led to an end of Aid-to Fire. Strange how these, now excess, funds might now be used to erect a doubtful new toy, a computer system. The Auditor could use some new computer help. He’s been so busy niggling fire district contracts and procedures that he failed to notice that over the years County Fire’s budgets got $1.6 million out of line. By the way, the supervisors did not provide the $100,000 for the City Gate study; it came out of all the fire district’s budgets thus providing less service for us citizens. The City Gate report did not perpetuate the desires of county officials and it is now pushing up daisies. Should you ever need to call (911) I can assure you that none of the above purse-holders, loaded with your money, will be among the first and only responders you see. Shameful how our first responders, in an effort to serve all of us, have found themselves under the table, in lesser company, begging for scraps.

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  • CrabbyApril 23, 2013 - 6:44 am

    The system is broke and the cuts in funding are threatening the status quo system of the fire fighters. The wagons are circling to protect the system at all costs. Big pensions, urban level compensation and near equal number of Chiefs and Indians are issues that will never be addressed unless funding flows stop. If it is really about the tax paying public and first response, then the hierarchies will flatten, the pensions shrink and compensation is frozen or reduced slightly. Anything else is gamesmanship using sequestration tactics to create pain instead of adjusting to the realities of the new normal. A county wide plan for ambulance service makes sense, but sending out the big trucks on every medical call does not compute. Overlapping skill sets in rural areas makes sense, 1 or 2 calls in EDH per day per station is wasted resources. Outsourcing duties to CalFire is very expensive thus if fire districts are unable or willing to manage their fire district should default to consolidation with a neighboring district. I respect the duties, responsibilities and the commitment of the front line first responder, but I have little use for the protect the system at all cost mental of union leaders and so-called management. What is missing is leadership...

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  • CAJApril 23, 2013 - 4:03 pm

    It's funny to me that everything we rely on has increased in cost. That as citizens we are forced to pay more for everything we buy from food to gas but when it comes to paying for the services that protect our lives we want to complain. If the cost of products such as fuel is going up for us don't you think public service is paying increased costs also. Everything that is purchased has gone up in price but their income has dropped. If you want to talk pay and pension then what is it worth for these folks to put their life on the line to serve and protect you, your family and your property?? Put a value on that. Most of them don't get to collect the outrageous pensions you talk about because some illness they contracted over the many years of public service takes their life. What is it worth when a criminal breaks into your house or when you are having a heart attack that someone comes when you call and that someone is highly trained and professional at what they do. The problem is everyone wants to ignore that but when you need it you will be very happy it's there and that you paid for a great service. Talk to the people in the county that have had to rely on the emergency system for help and see if they were happy someone came in there time of need.

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