Local fire chief works to save rural fire districts
The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors revived their Fire Advisory Committee to address the fiscal plight of the county’s rural fire districts during the April 9 meeting. The reformed committee will return in eight weeks with short- and long-term funding solutions, capital equipment needs, potential new revenue streams, operational efficiencies, consolidation options and system-wide accountability measures.
The action was a response to El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts’ call to action: “The future of fire and emergency medical response agencies in rural El Dorado County is in immanent jeopardy.”
His presentation recapped the labyrinthine funding history and grim outlook for the county’s rural fire and emergency services agencies.
In 2009 the board terminated the aid-to-fire subsidy, which pumped between $1.3 and $1.6 million annually between 2001 and 2012 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 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 county Auditor-Controller’s scathing memos on the Garden Valley Fire Chief’s 10-year contract.
They also 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 independent fire districts, which organized in 2011 to explore efficiencies through collaboration, consolidation and annexation. He described their successful collaborations in training, dispatch, prevention, purchasing and administration. 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 immanent 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 will make insurers even more hesitant to write homeowners’ policies in the county,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 has been 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.
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 directed ambulance funding 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 examining the problem and 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 were already stripped to the bone. 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. It passed in 2011 with 77 percent approval.
But that was before Cal Fire’s contentious 2012 fire fee, which local fire officials say has soured the public on any additional fees or taxes to support fire agencies.
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.
A 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.
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.”
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 them 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.