Board seeks to reduce fire agency costs without sacrificing service 

The board of supervisors tentatively signed off last week on a cost-cutting plan that will require reducing the number of Riverside County Fire Department personnel and likely hasten the closure of a fire station in Blythe to chip away at a $12 million agency deficit.

The board voted 4-0 to take action on a set of recommendations by the Fire Ad-Hoc Committee, but there was no firm consensus on how far-reaching the committee’s proposed cuts should be, prompting the supervisors to defer a final decision until next Tuesday.

“The committee’s intent was to help fill a (budget) hole,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said, who co-chaired the committee along with Supervisor John Tavaglione in meetings over the last month.

“We came back with options: change municipal staffing and reduce the number of company officers,” Jeffries said. “If we don’t want to do that, and we keep fire fully funded, we’re going to have to take money from animal services, the county hospital, code enforcement and the Economic Development Agency.”

Jeffries, a former firefighter, called the committee proposal “the best of all the bad decisions we have to make.”

Under the plan, Fire Station No. 43 in Blythe would be shuttered, one of the county’s two hazardous materials teams would be eliminated, a medic squad in Mecca would be dissolved, 50 personnel would be “reclassified” and a battalion chief position would be axed, along 11 firefighter and 15 administrative positions.

The reclassification would be linked to the switch from municipal staffing to traditional staffing, under which fire captains would no longer be serving in exclusively command positions, instead working to operate fire engines alongside firefighters during calls.

The concept maintains the board’s preference and a 2012 mandate to staff each engine with a minimum of three crew members.

According to the committee, the changes would net roughly $5.2 million in direct savings in fiscal year 2017-18. An additional $2.5 million in reserves would reduce the fire department’s overall deficit to $4.16 million.

The departmental deficit stems largely from a jump in labor costs tied to union agreements. The county contracts with Cal Fire for fire services, relying on more than 1,000 state firefighters to respond to emergencies countywide.

The state charges the county an administrative fee for managing back office operations associated with the contract. In the next fiscal year, the state intends to charge the county $20.8 million – a 40 percent increase compared to five years ago.

The fee would be essentially split between the county and 21 cities that contract with the fire department. However, Supervisor John Tavaglione complained that the fee was still way out of proportion to what’s reasonable.

“The state should be looking at us as the ‘golden ticket,’” Tavaglione said, alluding to the Willy Wonka prize. “We deserve more attention than we’ve been getting. We have the largest (Cal Fire) contract in the state. We’re not playing games here. We expect the state to work with us.”

County Fire Chief John Hawkins March 7 had proposed moving away from three-person engines wherever possible and utilizing two-person medic patrol units capable of hauling 250 gallons of water to handle some calls. But the committee rejected the cost-saving idea.

Despite the board’s desire to hold on to three-person engines, Cal Fire Local 2881 representatives remained unhappy with the reclassification plan and steps to make other personnel changes.

“If the cuts go forward, there will be significant losses and significant impacts that incur loss of life,” Local 2881 President Michael Lopez told the board. “We are saving lives. I hate to see us digress backwards.”

Fire Capt. Brian White said any push to eliminate “leadership positions” would further diminish the department’s collective experience level.

“There is a mass exodus from the fire department, and it’s happening at an alarming rate,” White said. “Firefighter-paramedics are leaving for other agencies faster than we can hire them.”

Supervisor Chuck Washington was uncomfortable with some of the committee’s proposals and said he wanted to ensure the “maximum level of safety for our firefighters and citizens,” without specifying how.

“It may be palatable to our citizens (not to impose cuts on the fire department),” Jeffries said. “But when we lose other services, we’ll have to answer for that. Are we prepared to tell the hospital it won’t get its $20 million? Do we take our reserves down from where they are now?”

County CEO Jay Orr reminded the board that higher funding obligations from the East County Detention Center to the California Public Employee Retirement System were coming at the board “in a wave,” so resolving how to close the fire department’s budget gap was paramount.

Board members felt waiting until the third-quarter budget report would be all the time they need.

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