Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My turn: Fire districts need to lead the change

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.

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.

Special to the Democrat


Discussion | 12 comments

  • robertdnollNovember 04, 2013 - 5:51 pm

    lot of ink to say nothing

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  • MorrisNovember 05, 2013 - 6:56 am

    Another example proving Briggs is about as useful as a sidesaddle on a pig.

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  • EvelynNovember 05, 2013 - 7:49 am

    Two basic/essential services: water & fire. For the County to approve more housing developments in the face of deteriorating essential services is insane.

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  • EvelynNovember 05, 2013 - 7:51 am

    BTW: Today BOS will approve pay increases for themselves and all other elected officials.

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  • EvelynNovember 06, 2013 - 9:07 am

    I was wrong and happily say so. Yesterday's BOS discussion about increases for elected dept heads and supervisors was a huge breath of fresh air, from Board and public alike. The decision has been postponed until the 18th. When the video becomes available I'll post the link. Definitely worth watching that segment. Bravo to all concerned.

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  • EvelynNovember 06, 2013 - 8:00 pm

    VIDEO, yesterday's BOS meeting. Agenda item concerning changes to compensation, Elected Dept. Heads, 03:36:04 – 04:52:40.

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  • 1036-FrankNovember 05, 2013 - 8:36 am

    Massive consolidation just like Sac Metro did is the option that perhaps, as many have said, should be applied with a single board comprised from each of the districts that choose to consolidate. To trim the fat, this would have to entail a single command structure, the other option if each district seeks to remain independent are some creative revenue streams for each district which they will have to identify and propose and pass, the other option of taxation of parcel owners is always a hard sell at the ballot box.

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  • SmokinbearNovember 05, 2013 - 12:47 pm

    No fire departments, no development. Fire District's have to sign off on any development in their responsibility area. No exceptions. Briggs quoted figure on the tax increments collected by individual districts are way off. Typical Briggs. Thank god this loser will be history soon. Hey BOS, next time you need fire, ems or rescue because of STUPID, call your new $5.6 mil computer system for help!

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  • SliderNovember 05, 2013 - 1:33 pm


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  • cookie65November 06, 2013 - 5:30 am

    Few things in life are as predictable as what follows the unionization of taxpayer funded labor. There is a completely ignored reality of what unions are in the business of doing. Their function is to negotiate the maximum compensation for the minimum of production. Their purpose is NOT to maximize services and minimize costs. Unions are in the business of maximizing their own power, money and influence.

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  • SliderNovember 06, 2013 - 7:53 am

    Kookie65, Sounds just like politicians. Power, Money, Influence. They hate the competition. The rural fire district employees are not overpaid. Check out the State Controllers website for compensation rates for Pioneer, Rescue, Georgetown and Garden Valley and compare it to CalFire, El Dorado Hills, Diamond Springs, and El Dorado County Fire. Next time you or your family need help in an emergency, Call Briggs.

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  • Tax PayerNovember 06, 2013 - 8:29 am

    One only has to really pay attention to what has happened to El Dorado County Fire Protection District. Did this 1991conolidation effort succeed? No it did not. They gave huge raises, which in turn increased costs to retirement, workers comp. premiums, overtime, etc. They are on the brink of bankruptcy and why? Because these special fire districts create their own little kingdoms, giving raises and perks that the private sector does not enjoy. The BOS needs to look at the salaries that are being paid out in these small districts. Does a fire chief really need a 10 year contract and a 100,000 plus salary in Georgetown and Garden Valley? How man of these guys are double dipping the system? Let's get real, greed is what is taking these fire districts down.

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