Recently the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the allocation of funds to six rural fire districts in desperate need of additional staff and updated equipment. The decision was not easy. The truth is that county government has no legal requirement to financially partner with local fire districts. In addition, the same funds that the county will use to help the fire service also support other critical services the county is responsible for, including law enforcement and roads. After thoroughly scrutinizing a difficult set of tradeoffs, the board recognized that in the current regulatory environment, the revenue streams of rural districts are not congruent with staffing and equipment required for expected service levels, and without this funding, survival of rural districts could be in jeopardy. It was a bold decision.
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Fire districts have long endured a perfect storm that has eroded their financial stability. Proposition 13 in 1978 limited the ability of districts to adjust to the economic climate. This was followed by Assembly Bill 8 (AB-8) which effectively froze an archaic tax rate structure into place in perpetuity. Next came the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund, a decision by the Legislature which reduced most department budgets by nearly 10 percent. While the county as a whole suffered with the property tax revenue decline that began in 2008, the fire service got a double-whammy as the program that was initiated by the county to round-out district revenues, Aid-to-Fire, was cancelled. Finally, the Cal Fire SRA fee, which the districts do not receive a penny of, hampered the ability of districts to raise additional tax revenue. The result was a reduction of fire staff by 16 percent countywide, 50 percent of the districts being unable to properly maintain safety equipment, 70 percent of the districts relying on engines that were more than 25 years old, and 90 percent of the districts deferring purchases of equipment.
Leadership is solving problems however. In response to these challenges, fire districts across the county banded together to form the Coalition of Collaborative Fire Departments. Last year the CCFD reengaged the county in public discussion about the uncertain future of the fire service. In turn, the Board of Supervisors agreed to participate in an independent, fire district by fire district financial analysis to objectively examine district fiscal health. In short, the analysis concluded that most rural fire districts were one piece of failed equipment away from the tumbling over the financial brink.
A committee consisting of representatives from the Board of Supervisors, district fire boards and fire chiefs proposed a two-phased solution. First, the Board of Supervisors would provide a short-term infusion of cash to help maintain a minimum level of service in each struggling district. With this financial “patch” in place, the county and districts could continue working toward cost control and increased efficiencies in the fire service, and ultimately a more equitable and sustainable distribution of property taxes to support struggling districts. The Board of Supervisors agreed with the plan, and more importantly, took the first financial steps to put it into motion.
We are already seeing results from the renewed cooperation between the county and fire districts. Fire districts up and down the county have adopted resolutions in support of the plan. Actions already taken by various boards include the proposed dissolution of the Latrobe Fire Protection District and annexation into El Dorado Hills Fire, service-sharing agreements between El Dorado Hills and Rescue, chief-sharing discussions between Mosquito and Georgetown, and chief service agreements proposed between Meeks Bay and North Lake Tahoe. A collaborative committee continues to meet to reexamine acceptable services levels, adequate emergency response times, joint purchasing agreements, and a host of other ideas and methods for strengthening the fire service.
Despite the challenges of declining revenue and increasing costs, higher performance standards, and reduced staffing, the fire district directors, fire chiefs and the Board of Supervisors have continued working together to provide fire service to residents of El Dorado County. While there have definitely been fits and starts, and the relationship between the partners has not always been a smooth one, the Board of Supervisors latest decision was a significant step forward in ensuring a strong, sustainable fire service.
Dr. John Moalli is a member of the Mosquito Fire Protection District Board and participates in the county Fire Advisory Group. He also serves as president of the board for The Center for Violence-Free Relationships, and teaches at Stanford University.