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Fire districts look at new deal

By From page A1 | January 25, 2012

The El Dorado Hills Fire Board agreed to the terms of a draft contract to provide “primary incident response” in Latrobe for $25,000 annually. A second proposed contract would provide administrative support for $5,000 per year.

The proposals are the result of discussions between El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts and Latrobe Fire Chief Chris Couper, and are just two of several cost-cutting options being considered by the Latrobe Fire Board, which received a likely final $108,000 in county aid-to-fire funds this year.

Couper, an executive with a large computer firm, takes no salary as fire chief, reserving district funds for four to six paid intern firefighters who work the day shift. When they go home the district is in the hands of a core group of volunteers.

“Even with the $108,000 we’re using our reserves to maintain our level of service this year,” said Couper. “But come July 1 we need to do something else.”

The Latrobe Fire Protection District has never been prosperous. Like all fire districts, it is funded by a portion of district property tax dictated by complex late-1970’s tax revenue math that left Latrobe with a 6 percent share of the Prop 13 mandated 1 percent property tax.

By comparison, El Dorado Hills receives 17.5 percent.

Exacerbating the inequity, Latrobe has a fraction of its affluent northerly neighbor’s property tax base.

Latrobe’s tax and assessment revenue was just $141,840 in 2009, the most recent year the state Controller’s Office reported on special district revenues. Couper confirmed that tax revenues have steadily declined since then.

The 2007-08 El Dorado County Grand Jury strongly suggested that rural fire districts like Latrobe consolidate with their larger neighbors. In his response to the Grand Jury, Latrobe Fire Board Chairman John Haverty explained that the district has considered reorganization proposals from several agencies, including a 2002 proposal from El Dorado Hills, but none made sense because of limited district funding.

El Dorado Hills Fire Board Directors Lou Barber and Jim Hartley manned the Regional Operations Committee that oversaw the efforts of district legal counsel Mike Cook on the Latrobe contract.

In recommending it to the full board, Barber said, “This is the right thing to do for Latrobe and the right thing for El Dorado Hills. We’re doing the work anyway and this gives us an opportunity to recoup some of our costs. And we extend a hand of warmth to our neighbors.”

Chief Roberts confirmed that his engines respond to roughly three-fourths of Latrobe’s emergency calls through automatic aid. Ambulance response remains covered by the county Joint Powers Authority, which is outside the agreement.

The proposed $25,000 annual cost was calculated by estimating 60 one-hour emergency calls per year at the state reimbursement rate of $420 per hour for an engine company, including crew, equipment and overhead.

The initial contract term runs 17 months to align it with the fiscal year, and requires payment in advance, which puts the 17-month up-front cost to Latrobe at $35,416.

The contract requires Latrobe to maintain a trained volunteer force that,  for minor emergencies, can relieve the El Dorado Hills crew when they arrive on the scene.

“That relief has to show up for our numbers to hold up,” said Director John Hidahl. “If we become the sole responder it will become obvious quickly and this won’t be a valid contract.”

Chiefs Roberts and Couper have indicated that regardless of the contract their engine companies will continue to roll in each other’s districts under the existing mutual and automatic aid agreements.

That means El Dorado Hills will continue to respond to Latrobe emergencies with or without the contract. So why would a cash-strapped district pay for a service its already getting free?

“We’re trying to make sure that everyone is compensated fairly,” said Couper. “El Dorado Hills has always responded and I hope they always do. We’re looking for options to ensure the integrity of the response for everyone concerned.

“We want to be honest with everyone, especially the residents of the Latrobe community, who need to understand what their options and exposures are,” he added.

The contract assures El Dorado Hills “absolute flexibility in the assignment of available personnel and equipment” which, in the absence of in-district calls or training, will be Station 87 located in the El Dorado Hills Business Park.

El Dorado Hills resident Craig Petersen wondered if the commitment to Latrobe might hinder potential staff reductions at the otherwise underutilized Station 87, where “brownouts” have been considered in the past.

Resident Ron Mikulako, who attended the committee meetings where the Latrobe contract was hammered out, spoke in favor of the Latrobe contract and against shuttering stations.

“We’re paying (firefighters) regardless of whether they’re in the station or in Latrobe,” he said. “We’re in a position to help.”

All of Latrobe’s apparatus and equipment will remain owned, operated and maintained by Latrobe staff. The Latrobe volunteers will be invited to train with the El Dorado Hills volunteers.

The contract spells out El Dorado Hills’ responsibilities concisely: “to provide primary incident response for all emergency calls within Latrobe Fire Protection District,” with supplemental response provided by Latrobe.

“This contract doesn’t replace us; it simply augments us,” said Couper, who recounted a vehicle accident last Sunday where the Latrobe volunteers were on scene first, and worked with the El Dorado Hills crew. “In a lot of situations it takes more than one engine company to get the job done.”

Non-emergency calls remain Latrobe’s responsibility. Primary wildland fire responsibility remains with Latrobe and Cal Fire.

The contract requires several things of the Latrobe Fire District:

• Continue to employ a fire chief, and provide a daily schedule of officers on duty
• Maintain an equipped volunteer program at or near current levels
• Continue to respond to all incidents with available personnel, including a certified incident commander
• When Latrobe arrives at a fire or accident after El Dorado Hills, Latrobe to assume command and release El Dorado Hills personnel and equipment “as soon as feasible.”

The monthly responsibilities in the administrative contract include:
• Pay 10 to 15 bills
• Perform up to six plan-checks and inspections
• Miscellaneous bookkeeping to include up to 20 AR/AP entries

Like the emergency services contract, payment is required in advance and either party can terminate the contract at will.

Latrobe’s fire board will discuss the proposed contracts during the regular February meeting, but there’s currently no action item on the agenda.

Couper wouldn’t conjecture on the receptivity of his board to the proposed contracts, only that they are seeking “any and all opportunities to bring the best service to Latrobe.”

The Latrobe Fire Board’s February meeting will be held at Ryan Ranch Fire Station, 7470 Ryan Ranch Road, on Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Mike Roberts


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