City releases statement on fire services contract

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At Wednesday's City Council meeting, it was announced the City has hired former Cal Fire chief and veteran Indio City Councilman Michael Wilson, at left, as the city's temporary fire chief. Council has asked Wilson to guide the City in forming its own department. He is pictured with Canyon Lake Mayor Jordan Ehrenkranz. Photo by Donna Kupke

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, it was announced the City has hired former Cal Fire chief and veteran Indio City Councilman Michael Wilson, at left, as the city’s temporary fire chief. Council has asked Wilson to guide the City in forming its own department. He is pictured with Canyon Lake Mayor Jordan Ehrenkranz. Photo by Donna Kupke

The following press release was made available late Tuesday, June 30.

Despite the City’s best efforts, it has not been able to get the County to the table to discuss the ongoing fire services dispute. The City went so far as to seek judicial intervention to require the County to extend the existing contract between the City and the County and to require the County Fire Chief to work with the City to transition in a City-run fire department.

Unfortunately, all efforts have been unsuccessful, leaving the City no choice but to declare a State of Local Emergency and ask that the County or State Offices of Emergency Services step in to provide interim fire services until the City’s fire department is up and fully functional. The City anticipates that process being complete before the end of July.

The City has already retained a new interim Fire Chief. The City also has a majority of the equipment at Station 60, including the fire truck. It is anticipated that the Station will be adequately staffed within a week. However, a Declaration of a State of Local Emergency was necessary to ensure that adequate fire protection is in place while the City-run fire department is fully functional.

The City has also now received a letter from the City Council of the City of Lake Elsinore expressing their support of the regional system and standing by their previous actions to authorize calls for service from their stations to serve Canyon Lake, with the appropriate cost recovery, and asserting that the City of Lake Elsinore is willing to entertain any other service options permissible during the transition period.

Medical services (which are a significant portion of emergency calls by City residents) will remain with the same provider – AMR. City residents will still call 911 for their emergencies and, depending on the nature of the call, either AMR will be dispatched or a fire engine will be.

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 is time to set the record straight with citizens 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.

Over the course of the relationship, the County transitioned the City from a two-person engine to a three-person engine company. This resulted in a tremendous increase in costs.

As the then Chief explained in his October 2006 letter to the City: “All of this would be moot, if funds were not available for an upgrade . . .” He assured Council members at the time that the City would have the ability to obtain a reduction of services if the City’s revenue decreased.

Initially, the City could afford the increase with surpluses in its Structural Fire Fund Property Tax (“SFF”). Later, the shortfall between SFF revenues and fire expenses were covered with a subsidy from the County.

However, the ever-increasing costs (this year’s increase is between 18 and 25 percent in one year), associated with personnel salaries and benefits, became unsustainable, and the City was forced to request a reduction in cost, preferably through a return to the two-person engine (as in the City of Calimesa) or by conversion to a paramedic squad only with fire services provided by neighboring station as part of the cooperative system.

However, the County steadfastly refused to consider any such change and asserted that the language in the Cooperative Agreement that provides a City with the ability to control costs and service levels only applies to increasing service levels, not decreasing them.

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. Those taxes failed.

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 SFF and the costs with the unexpectedly substantial increases for the upcoming year.

Additionally, that tax sunsets six years after passage, or December 31, 2020, which would leave the City in the same financial hardship that it was in prior to the tax being approved if it did not take some action now to prevent further increases to fire service costs.

In response to the rapidly increasing costs of fire services, City representatives approached Chief Hawkins and requested that the County provide a solution which would provide fire services at a cost no greater than the SFF received. Chief Hawkins presented three possible approaches, all of which involved the closure of Station 60 and provision of ongoing services from stations in Lake Elsinore and Menifee.

At the direction of Chief Hawkins, on August 8, 2013, the City sent a letter to the County requesting that change, effective December 8, 2013, thereby complying with the 120-day notice period required by the Cooperative Agreement. However, on May 21, 2013, at a community meeting, Chief Hawkins reversed his position and indicated the Station had to stay open.

In November 2013, the City held the second special tax election in an attempt to develop an additional funding source for the service level dictated by the County. As noted above, this special tax also failed.

On November 18, 2013, after the special tax election, over three months after receiving the City’s notice of reduction in services, without consultation or discussion with the City, the Fire Chief notified the City that the County had decided to treat the request to reduce services as a request to terminate the Cooperative Agreement pursuant to the County’s unilateral authority pursuant to the Cooperative Agreement, and therefore Station 60 would close on August 8, 2014.

At no point had the City requested termination; instead, the City requested a change in the exhibit to the Cooperative Agreement that explains the services provided and the related costs.

Thereafter, the County took a variety of conflicting positions: On May 27, 2014, Todd Williams, County Fire Division Chief, stated that Station 60 would close on July 21, 2014. On May 28, 2014, Chief Williams stated that Station 60 could stay open until August 4, 2014, a date convenient to County Fire payroll, if the City paid the cost.

On June 4, 2014, the County notified the City that Station 60 would close on August 8, 2014; and seven days later, on June 11, 2014, the County reversed its position again and notified the City that Station 60 would not be closed and that there would never be a cost reduction or reduction in services under the contract.

Because the City was concerned it did not have an ongoing source of revenue to pay for fire services in excess of the SFF, as well as all other City needs such as police and city services, on June 26, 2014 the City gave another 120-day notice of reduction of services and a notice of termination.

The City did not assert that it wanted out of the integrated system or that it no longer wanted to contract with the County for fire services. The County acknowledged receipt of the notices.

Beginning in May 2014, the City withheld payment to the County for fire services. This was for the period of service from January 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015. This was necessary because the County refused to honor the provisions in the agreement allowing the City to obtain a reduction in the level of service and related costs.

In an effort to develop an affordable alternative to the current level of service, the City retained a well-respected fire services consultant, Ronny J. Coleman, to meet with the Fire Chief, County Fire and/or CalFire to develop an alternative that meets with the needs of the system.

Mr. Coleman contacted Chief Hawkins and attempted to meet with him to try to establish some level of communication. Chief Hawkins advised Coleman that he was not allowed to speak with Mr. Coleman based on his lawyer’s advice. In April, 2015, the City entered into a confidentiality/admissibility agreement with the County to allow Chief Hawkins and other fire executives to be able to speak freely without concern that those comments would arise in the pending lawsuit between the City and County.

All of the key participants signed the confidentiality agreement (including Mr. Coleman and Chief Hawkins) and Mr. Coleman again contacted Chief Hawkins on or about the second week of April. Mr. Coleman explained that the purpose of the communications was to evaluate potential options to a resolution of the fire service problem, not for the pending lawsuit.

Chief Hawkins again refused to provide information, stating that the County lawyers would not let him provide any information to the City’s consultant.

The Chief’s refusal to provide information prohibited the City from developing service alternatives and it was inconsistent with the agreement. Mr. Coleman made an additional phone call in or about the first week of May to see if word had reached the Chief that he was authorized to speak with the City’s consultant.

That call was also unsuccessful. Because Mr. Coleman’s associate on this project, Ron Myers, also had a personal relationship with Chief Hawkins, Mr. Myers attempted to make contact. That attempt was similarly unsuccessful.

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 County has consistently 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 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. It is a vital part of developing service alternatives and transitioning to new service that the current fire officials work with incoming fire staff and officials to develop efficient service based on the immediate past experiences serving the area.

Both before and after the parties entered into the Cooperative Agreement, the parties have had extensive discussions concerning the level of fire service desired by the County and the level of fire service that could be afforded by the City. The County has not negotiated – it has simply responded.

The County made much ado of its minimum service level requirement and its universal application and the need to meet minimum safety levels. However, the County does not require all of its partner cities to purchase the service level demanded from Canyon Lake. Documents provided by the County pursuant to the City’s Public Records Act request demonstrate that a more cost effective level of service is being provided to the City of Calimesa.

The City of Canyon Lake has fewer calls than Calimesa. Similarly, the County does not require other jurisdictions within the County, but not served by the County, to have three-person engine companies.

Some citizens have questioned why the City won’t simply pay the County and be done with it. The answer is simple. It cannot. The City’s annual budget is approximately $4.6 million a year. The County, for the last year of the Cooperative Agreement, is demanding just under $2 million. That is almost half the City’s entire budget, and the revenue from the SFF is just under a million dollars. That leaves the City to make up the difference.

Beyond that, the County is insisting on entering a new agreement to cover the period from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2015. The costs to the City under that proposed agreement is even higher, and it can rise during the term of the agreement without consent by the City.

The County has failed to provide any evidence that the costs are justified or the resources it chooses unilaterally to allocate are necessary or have any relationship to increasing the safety of Canyon Lake citizens. To the contrary, the City has discovered that the standards imposed by the County are nothing more than County policy, not safety standards. The City cannot pay close to $2 million dollars just because the County wants it to.

Moving forward, the City will continue to take all steps possible to protect the citizens of Canyon Lake.

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Sharon Rice