Fire houses/stations were among the first, and often are the only, public buildings constructed also serving as a community center for these rural communities. Over time local communities banded together and created a special district to tax themselves for local services like fire suppression.
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Currently, El Dorado County has 15 fire districts with 15 locally elected fire district boards or, said another way, there are 75 locally elected directors who are charged with the oversight and leadership of their fire districts. Additionally, there are 15 fire chiefs, assistant chiefs, untold captains and other ranks of command.
Over the decades, the locally created fire districts negotiated for a portion of the property taxes they thought at the time sufficient to pay the bills. On the low side a district receives 12 cents per dollar and on high side another receives 17 cents. To give you a sense of scale, the county operates its services delivered by 1,600 employees off of 27 cents of the same tax dollar.
For a while the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors tried to patch the financial gap by contributing $1.2 million annually to the fire districts. My first year in office (2007) our board was faced with falling, not declining, free-falling sales and property tax collection along with negotiating all county union contracts simultaneously (a gift from the 2000 Board of Supervisors, who gave eight-year contracts as one of their last acts in December of 2000). We spent the next couple years evaluating county services and asked our employees to work without a raise. During this time the board studied the rationale applied by prior boards of their $1.2 million aid to fire. We, in cooperation with the Fire Chiefs Association, and the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), commissioned a study to take a fiscal snapshot of all fire districts.
With little surprise, the report affirmed what we all knew. Unless things change, the small districts are either out of or are running out of money. Medium districts have a little more reserves in the bank, but they too would suffer the fate of smaller districts. The report praised our county fire districts which, for all intents and purpose, act as one agency with a central dispatch; inter-agency cooperation; and strategically located ambulance and EMTs providing a seamless delivery of emergency response service.
Back in 2009 and 2010, the Board of Supervisors, working collaboratively with the Fire Chiefs Association, set about a path seeking a long-term solution. The board at that time said it was not interested in throwing money into a failing system. In my opinion, throwing money at failing services does not solve the problem nor is it good public policy. Convinced of a cooperative spirit, the board unanimously voted a two-year extension of aid to fire which ended June 2012.
In September the Board of Supervisors did not approve any fiscal patch to the fire districts. At the board meeting on Sept. 24, something different occurred. Instead of one chief representing the Fire Chiefs Association, several elected fire district board members came forth requesting the Board of Supervisors reestablish aid to fire at the sum of $700,000 (approximate) per year for a two-year period enabling districts time to come up with a plan. Here we are five years later and the districts have done little to help themselves.
On Sept. 24 the Board of Supervisors did agree to listen to their future proposal conditional upon a receiving a letter ratified by all 15 district boards indicating each districts willingness to participate in a permanent countywide solution.
I get the politics of the matter. There are 15 districts with 75 board members. I gotta tell you it’s hard enough to get three people to agree, I can only imagine the difficulty of trying to get 75 people to agree.
The county does not possess deep pockets. During this past six years your Board of Supervisors has done a good job in bringing forward balanced budgets, achieving good labor relations and paid off the last bit of debt, making El Dorado County debt free. The county has its own needs starting with replacing its aged facilities; updating our circa 1980 computer software; and after six years of holding the line, our employees deserve pay recognition.
For the fire districts it is getting past time to act; there will be fire districts failing, probably sooner than later and despite rural mythology, the county doesn’t have any legal responsibility to pick up the pieces, leaving vulnerable failing districts to out-of-county providers such as Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
For myself, I’m a local guy. I want local fireman, local identity and do not desire for one firehouse to close. What I heard Sept. 24 on the dais was the Board of Supervisors saying it will continue to be interested in participating in the fire districts’ discussion seeking fiscally sound fire service delivery for the future. But in the end, it is the districts which need to lead the conversation, not the county.
Finally, my personal opinion, the larger fiscally better off fire districts need to view the matter systemically and while they may enjoy good times now, when smaller districts fail, and they will fail, they will take down every one of them. Nobody is too big to fail.
Ron Briggs is the chairman of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors and supervisor for District IV.