Although the City this week declared a State of Local Emergency with regard to fire services, the fireworks show will go on as planned and medical/fire emergencies will continue to be covered through the 911 system.
It has been a confusing week for everyone trying to figure out what was going to happen with fire services in Canyon Lake. The City’s contract with Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire expired Tuesday, June 30, and personnel at the station could be seen removing the County signage that day.
Because so many last-minute decisions were being made as late as Tuesday, it was necessary for the City of Canyon Lake to declare a State of Local Emergency and ask that the County or State Offices of Emergency Services step in and provide interim fire services until the City’s fire department is up and fully functional – hopefully by the end of July.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Public Safety Committee, Station 60’s Captain Brent Carter gave his usual report about the local stations’ responses to fire and medical calls. After the meeting he mentioned in private conversation that he had been assigned to a fire station in Sun City. Brent has been the captain of Station 60 in Canyon Lake since August 2002.
Those who were paying attention saw other indicators that Canyon Lake may be losing its service from Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire for good. The Canyon Lake City Council passed an emergency ordinance on June 24 allowing the City to create a municipal fire department.
City Manager Ariel Hall said that the City would retain ownership of Engine 60 and at least some of the equipment at the firehouse, which is owned by the Canyon Lake Property Owners Association. It also was announced that a fire chief would be introduced at this week’s regular City Council meeting.
Still, the City held out hope that a San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge would require Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire to provide a temporary extension of the current contract until the lawsuit filed in January could be resolved. However, the judge ruled Tuesday morning against imposing a temporary extension.
For their part, the County Board of Supervisors also waited until Tuesday morning, finally voting 5-0 to offer Canyon Lake a new one-year contract, based on the terms of the current contract, at a cost of $1.75 million. It was an offer the City Council said it could not afford to accept. Meeting in closed session Tuesday night, Council voted to reject the contract and declare the State of Local Emergency.
Canyon Lake’s City Council and paid staff have been working for many years to resolve the dilemma created by the lack of revenue to pay for public safety. Twice the City asked citizens to approve taxes that would help pay for public safety, and twice the citizens rejected new taxes. Finally, voters did approve the Utility User Tax (UUT), the funds of which will continue to help pay for public safety.
Five years ago, the City looked into forming its own fire department. At that time, there were many supporters who believed the City could run an efficient fire department, with higher level professionals given salaries, along with regular firefighting positions filled by trained volunteers.
A committee made up of volunteer professionals from the community researched this option for many months and ultimately determined that a city (municipal) fire department would cost as much or more than what the City was paying the County for fire services. However, that was before the drastic rise in costs recently imposed by Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire.
The City released a statement late Tuesday explaining its position. Here are a few key points:
- The City has hired an interim fire chief and has much of the equipment it needs, including an engine, to start a City Fire Department.
- Medical services will be provided by American Medial Response (AMR).
“ Up to this point, the City has stayed relatively quiet about its interactions with the County as the City attempted to work with the County. However, it now desires to “set the record straight and fill in the gaps as to what the County has really been doing to impede the City’s attempts to ensure that its citizens have adequate fire services.”
- In an effort to work with the County’s demands, on three occasions the City held an election for a special tax. The first two were specifically for the purposes of subsidizing fire services. Voters rejected both taxes. Recently the voters did pass a general, temporary utility tax to close its general fund deficit, partially due to the increasing costs of fire services. However, that was not enough to meet the differential between the Structural Fire Fund (SFF) property tax and the unexpectedly substantial increases demanded by County Fire for the upcoming year.
- Chief Hawkins, the City’s own top fire official, consistently refused to meet with the City’s consultant because he is also the County Fire Chief, the City contends. The County has refused to provide access to any fire officials, including officials compensated with the City’s SFF; instead insisting that the level of service dictated by the County for the City was the only alternative the County would consider.
- The City says, “County’s refusal to provide fire service information and obstruction of the City’s efforts to obtain alternative service have prevented the City from securing fire protection and emergency medical services after June 30, 2015. It is difficult, if not impossible, to put a plan in place when the City’s Chief has refused to meet, refused to cooperate, and the County has refused to consider an extension, even for transition management.”
- Some citizens have questioned why the City won’t simply pay the County and be done with it. The answer is simple, says the City: It cannot.