Monday, June 25, 2012

Looking at fire - the last place to cut

When I retweeted a story this morning about the fire cuts, I got a response from a reader (since deleted), "you obviously do not live in Pomona and have to [sic] no vested interest in how it will affect the community. Thanks"

It's a common concern from Pomona residents, concerned about the closing of fire stations and not aware of the other hard choices made over the years to parks, police, the library, and other community services. As a Pomona resident, I have to deal with the fact that our citizens have expressed, on numerous occasions, their lack of willingness to pay to maintain the services that we have. But let's take a look back at what is actually being proposed, and past efforts at bringing fire costs down the line, after the jump.

Fire Station 188 - Phillips Ranch

First, a little bit of background. Pomona contracted out fire services to the County back in 1994. If you didn't grow up in Pomona in the 90's, you may not have recalled how depressed this city was. The Pomona Mall and downtown Pomona was completely moribund after the shutdown of Buffums, the Indian Hill Mall had lost its Ralphs, the murder rate was skyrocketing, and card clubs were being proposed to revive the city. The Pomona Fire Department was also beset by racial and sexual discrimination at the time, and despite protest by city residents (some things never changed), on a 4-3 vote the city council authorized LA County Fire to take over. At the time the city would have saved $2 million out of its $14 million budget.

Incidentally, at that time, although the intent based on the passed resolution in 1994 was to annex to the Consolidated Fire Protection District, according to the City Manager in its budget report (page 8), it does not appear to have ever occurred. So this is a pure fee-for-service arrangement, where Pomona budgets contribute to the requested amount of fire services, not the case in newer cities which never left the Fire District which they were a part of when they were unincorporated area. This is why Diamond Bar has a negligible amount for city-requested fire services for its budget, for example.

The issue has been brewing for some time. In 2010 there was a study conducted by Matrix Consulting to look at consolidating fire stations in North Pomona. The stations proposed to be closed were on White Avenue south of the 10 freeway and on Bonita Avenue, just east of Garey, for a new fire station located just north of the hospital. The city council even purchased an escrow option on property for a new consolidated fire station, only to pull back when community opposition surfaced. This staff report gives a good overview on the options presented to the city council in the past on the fire contract. 

However, because of the granular nature of fire department staffing, it is much more difficult to cut firefighters than it is police officers. Police can be cut more easily because they are dispatched from one, centrally located station, and they have been cut 25% over the last few years. Meanwhile there is a minimum amount of staffing for a fire station - short of downgrading equipment, which saves minimal personnel (as discussed in County Fire's assessment of staffing). County fire also negotiates salaries Countywide, and although the County's benefit package is significantly less generous than many cities in Southern California, wages have stayed flat since 2008, while other city departments endured furloughs and increased employee contributions to health care and pensions. Although contracting with other neighboring fire entities, such as Chino Valley Fire, may be an option, they are unlikely to take on the responsibility of protecting Pomona.

The County Fire chief's plan is to have the city consolidate such that the "headquarters" for Pomona fire is at Station 182, located on White Avenue just south of the 10 freeway. Thus, Station 181, near the civic center, which also hosts the battalion chief, would be closed. No new fire station would be built, but Station 182 would be expanded. In addition, the fire chief requests that the city place a tax measure on the ballot, similar to that charged to unincorporated area property owners, to fund these services.

The firefighters' union, Local 1014, has proposed joining the Fire District (page 8), and allocating a portion of property tax currently going to the city to the Fire District, a solution that seems complicated, and is disputed by the city manager as to whether it will save any money.

Ultimately this complex issue will be hashed out in the span of an evening at the city council chambers. To recap, here's the agenda. Items 2 and 3 will take up the bulk of the time, and those speakers who signed up on June 18 will be called first so that they do not need to sign up again. It's time for citizens to "get educated, and see you [tonight] at 6."


Anonymous said...

In addition to cutting the library, leaving the kids with nowhere to go. As well as the cut backs the police and other essential sity services. I'm afraid this may soon be Pomona;

Anonymous said...

I say go private. Way cheaper. These guys make too much. $100k + 98-99% of all calls are non fire related. Break from county, offer volunteer fire, contract with schaefer for medic service. No need to always have a fire engine with 6 guys showing up for grandma falling out of bed.-Private Medic Unincorporated LA town-