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Fire stations battle budget woes

Officials wonder: Is consolidation the future?
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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Placer County Fire Department /Cal Fire

As a fire department that contracts with a state agency for services, Placer County Fire Department has greater resources than local fire districts, but no immunity to the sagging economy.

The county fire department currently staffs 66 full-time firefighters and 40 resident, studying firefighters for eight full-time stations in Alta, Bowman, Colfax, Dry Creek, Lincoln, North Auburn, Ophir and Sunset. Of these, the Bowman, Alta, Cofax and Foresthill stations are owned and funded by Cal Fire in the summer, and all but Foresthill are staffed by the county year round or in the winter.

The county also has 60 volunteers to maintain six volunteer stations in Dutch-Flat, Fowler, Lone Star, Paige, Sheridan and Thermalands areas. Collectively, full-time and volunteer stations cover an estimated 417 square miles and some 45,000 residents.

In the past decade, two fire districts merged with Placer County Fire Department: Dry Creek Fire Protection District and Placer Consolidated Fire Protection District. This placed their combined four stations in control of the county, with services provided by Cal Fire.

Information officer Daniel Berlant said the departments gauge their services by acreage rather than response times due to the highly variable distances of emergency runs, but Placer County’s Cal Fire stations meet state guidelines of containing 95 percent of wildfires to 10 acres or less.

Because they work 72 hours a week and staff fewer firefighters per station, Berlant said county firefighters make considerably more than district personnel at $87,845 a year including overtime and benefits.

The county fire department’s funds mostly come from the state’s general fund and a one-time development fee, which is $0.68 per square foot for residential property. As of 2012, all California residents also pay a $150 parcel fee if they live in an urban area, although 98 percent of them live within a fire district and therefore pay a discounted rate of $115.

Berlant said the future of Cal Fire funding depends on the state; the latest fee was imposed after the State of California cut $80 million from its fire protection budget, now approximately $600 million.

“During the fire season we used to have four firefighters on every fire engine, and after the budget reduction we went down to three firefighters on every fire engine during the summertime,” he said. Placer County staffs only two firefighters per engine during the winter, except at the Sunset station, where a casino contracts for an extra one.

Editor’s note: Through interviews with Auburn-area fire officials, the Journal has assembled a broad swath of information to provide a snapshot of the resources and challenges of local fire departments.

 

After years of increasing activity and declining revenue, area fire stations are approaching a crossroads.

U.S. Census records show Placer County’s population grew by 40.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, and projections expect that trend to continue. Auburn-area fire stations spend more than $4.5 million to keep residents safe, not including Cal Fire dollars, and many have observed a corresponding growth in demand for their services. But with a depressed housing market, their income from property taxes has been going the opposite direction until very recently.

With 14 full-time stations operating in the Auburn area and 11 more on a part-time or volunteer basis, fire service administrators are looking for ways to cut costs and improve service at the same time. Some departments are in a more adaptable position than others, but each of them faces serious questions about long term funding.

 

Auburn City Fire Department

Responsible for protecting an estimated 13,500 residents from one of the region’s most prevalent natural hazards, the Auburn City Fire Department staffs 10 firefighters and another 15 volunteers. Of the department’s three stations, only the Gietzen Station on Sacramento Street is staffed 24/7; two others on High Street and Auburn Folsom Road are volunteer facilities from which volunteers and off duty personnel can respond as needed and retrieve equipment.

The annual salary for a city firefighter is about $44,000, plus retirement and health benefits for which the county pays 70 to 80 percent and the firefighters the rest.

The department’s 2012-2013 budget is $2,180,745, more than $1 million above what it was 10 years ago because of a $600,000 federal grant set to expire next year and a series of grants related to the shaded fuel break project.

Because the department is funded by the city’s general fund instead of a specific fee assessment, Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi said city fire service has felt the same pressure as police, public works, community development and other city departments, but it still gets the support it needs.

“I’d say the last few years have been stressed, there’s no question about it, for the entire city. However, our city council has made public safety a priority, so we are operating at bare bones level. We’re maintaining the same level of service, which is a good thing,” he said. “What we have not been able to focus on as much as we’d like to is special projects, special community programs, public education, all the additional programs, just because of funding and staffing.”

According to its annual report, the city fire department’s response times in 2012 averaged 4:38 for life-threatening emergencies and 8:18 for non-life-threatening emergencies. These amounted to a combined average response time of 6:28. D’Ambrogi said a $600,000 federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant allows the department to afford four extra firefighters through September 2014, but beyond that, the growing population will be a considerable challenge. The rate of annual fire incidents in the city rose by more than 38 percent over the past 10 years, and he doesn’t see that trend turning around any time soon.

“I believe that there’s more activity through our area. We have I-80, we have Highway 49, they’re main accesses, and people are coming and going, and then look at all the events we have around town as well,” D’Ambrogi said. “Our population base may be 13,000, but in the Festival of Lights parade, there’s another 15,000.”

 

Higgins Fire Protection District

Higgins fire district residents will file their mail-in ballots for a new tax measure proposal over the next few weeks, and if they don’t approve it this time – it is essentially the same proposal they voted down last year, but with a finite term and no cost of living increase – district officials say services cannot improve.

The district covers approximately 12,000 residents in 90 square miles with two of its three stations open at a time, staffed by 10 firefighters and another 18 on paid call basis at $11.51 an hour plus dental, vision and life insurance, and a 9 percent CalPERS retirement payment.

Battalion Chief Jerry Good said the district’s budget dropped from $1.6 million in 2008 to the current $1,180,236, more than 25 percent in five years, and average response times have nearly doubled from 6.5 minutes to 12 minutes since Measure B failed in June 2012.

He said the equivalent of six full-time positions were laid off, and the district was forced to keep its Dog Bar and McCourtney stations operating on alternating months instead of full-time. Good could not quantify the cost of the high response times in human life or fire damage, but he said the result can only be bad.

“A brain death can occur within 10 minutes if there’s not intervention, basic life support stuff that we deliver,” he said. “ And fire has a tendency to exponentially grow.”

The district’s most recent answer to funding problems is Measure O. Similar to Measure B, it would impose a special tax of $125 per residential structure, in place of the current rate of $25 imposed in 1980, as well as $40 per 1,000 square feet for commercial buildings and $45 per 1,000 square feet for industrial buildings. Unlike Measure B, this tax would stop after the 2022-2023 fiscal year, at which time the previous rate would be reinstated.

Good said the ballots will go in the mail in early April and be counted on May 7. If that fails, all options, including consolidation with other departments, are on the table.

“Our goal is to make (service) better than it is today. That’s always our goal, but it’s hard to say what the economy is going to do,” he said. “We are exploring all avenues. Grants, all revenue sources, different types of options. That will be in the near future.”

 

Newcastle Fire Protection District

The Newcastle fire district’s board of directors contracted with Killorn Construction of Lincoln last week to complete the last phase of repairs to its only station, and from there its attention will turn to a long-term budget plan.

Battalion Chief Jay Love said the district includes about 6,100 residents in more than 30 square miles, and average response times have remained “within the limit” he would call reasonable at about five minutes. But board members and firefighters have said a new station will be necessary soon, even if the old one is repaired, and board president Dave Ward does not think residents can bear another tax increase.

Current fees for district residents are $146 from Measure B, passed in 2012 to pay for a new fire station, and $74 from Measure F, passed in 1997 for firefighter salary and benefit increases. Combined, these total $220, which Ward estimated is more than four times what residents were paying 10 years ago.

The new revenue pushed district’s budget from $343,012 in 2011-2012, similar to what it had been for the past five years, to $627,322 for the current fiscal year.

Ward said the salaries for the district’s six firefighters are “competitive” with those of others in the area at up to $39,000 plus benefits, and $10.50 an hour for the fluctuating number of part-time firefighters (there are usually about five). Ward and other board members expect mounting costs will soon hit a ceiling in terms of what the district needs and what it can afford.

“They’ve needed new apparatus, new engines, labor costs have gone up. Everybody got a raise. They got a raise two years ago, and they got a raise last year. Benefits had to be thrown in there, so we had to get a new tax measure so we could take care of that,” he said. “Measure F and Measure B can go up by as much as 3 percent a year.”

Measure F increases by 2 percent a year based on cost of living, and Ward said the board will address Measure B within a month. On top of that, he said Newcastle fire district residents pay another $115 parcel fee to Cal Fire for living in an urban area based on a state policy that started last year. The fee would be $150 if they didn’t live in a fire district.

As with other fire districts, the possibility of consolidation as a cost-saving measure has come up. Ward said the combining purchases to get bulk discounts would reduce costs, and efficiency could improve response times as well. The Newcastle board of directors has spoken with other fire chiefs about it, and Ward doesn’t think it can wait 10 or 15 years.

“This has to happen within the next three or four years. In Newcastle, we’re looking at it very hard,” he said. “It’s just reorganization of the groups, where you have one chief over three areas. Then you go to command vehicles, what he’s driving – you have three of those for three chiefs, and you don’t need those. You need one, and it just goes on down the line.”

 

Placer Hills Fire Protection District

Like many adjacent districts, Placer Hills fire district has seen its fees go up as revenue went down, and its leadership is looking for a better funding model.

The district currently serves 12,000 people with two full-time stations, one in Meadow Vista and one in Weimar, plus an unstaffed volunteer station in Applegate. Six full-time employees staff the two stations, with help from 30 hourly part-time employees and 10 unpaid volunteers for the third. The staff includes no basic firefighters; the firefighter engineers make up to $51,195 plus health, dental and retirement, and the captains up to $60,296.87. Part-time workers earn $9.30 an hour.

Fire Chief Ian Gow said district residents pay two fire service fees totaling $116.16, both of which have gone up due to cost of living. One rose from $45 in 1996 to $63.84 today, and the other from $49 in 2004 to $52.32. The district’s budget rose by about 6 percent in the past five years to $1,597,990 in 2012-2013.

Gow said the district lost two full-time positions in that time, and while there are no specific plans for a further tax increase, the district’s board of directors is discussing whether it can ask the public for any more.

“The past five years were devastating to our income. We’ve lost – a rough ‘guestimate’ – 15 percent of our income due to the economic crash that everybody suffered,” he said. “We’ve lost two full-time positions, and we struggle to pay for necessities such as fire hose, turnout gear, the firefighting clothes that we have to wear, our insurance rates go up every year, our workman’s comp goes up every year, our health benefits have been rising every year, so it’s been very difficult for us to keep our budget balanced. We’ve been able to do it, but we’ve done it in large part by relying on our limited reserves.”

Though he sees it moving in the right direction, Gow is not optimistic that the economy will return to where it was in the foreseeable future. He said he anticipates a 1 percent increase in the district’s income this year, but it won’t be enough. As president of the County Fire Chiefs Association, Gow believes many districts will need to consolidate within the next several years.

“Fire chiefs have been aggressively looking at, because we’re all in a similar boat, of purchasing things together, doing maintenance together, trying to find cooperative ways to save money overall and still maintain everything. We’re also looking long-range at the possibility of many fewer fire departments, looking at consolidations, mergers, annexations, things like that,” he said. “The assumption is that, you take a number of broke fire departments and make one big fire department, you’ll probably just have a big broke department, but we think the reality is that the economy of scale, fewer fire chiefs, fewer administrations, if we can make it a little more efficient, we could, in fact, save money over the long haul for everybody.”

 Gow said average response times for Placer Hills fire district hover around seven minutes, and he would not do anything to increase that figure.

“We have to look at what response times we want, and can we afford that, but the goal would be to keep the level of service the same, if not better,” he said. “It would have to be, at minimum, the same and save money, but hopefully the fire protection would be better and save money.”