Editor’s Note: The Friday Flyer received this information too late to appear in this week’s printed edition.
On January 6, the City of Canyon Lake filed an action in Superior Court seeking declaratory relief in connection with its contract to provide fire protection for its community. Declaratory relief actions force the court to interpret contract items disputed between the parties. The heart of this is a determination by the court that the City is entitled to a reduction in the cost of its fire services pursuant to specific contract language between the City, Riverside County and CalFire.
The County and CalFire have a Master Agreement for fire services under which the County supplies services to unincorporated areas as well as to 21 cities and a Community Services District. The City of Canyon Lake is part of this system, providing fire protection services through a contract with Riverside County utilizing CalFire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) resources.
Costs to the City of Canyon Lake have risen consistently and precipitously over the years, primarily due to a forced increase in the staffing level on each fire engine, as well as pension costs and fixed costs under the Master Agreement. This staffing increase has no legal basis and has resulted in deficit spending by the City of Canyon Lake for many years.
Canyon Lake is a built-out community with virtually no short term ability to increase its revenues through economic development. In past years, the County and CalFire recognized the fiscal burden placed on Canyon Lake due to the enhanced staffing of each fire engine starting in 2006. Then-County Fire Chief Tom O’Keefe assured Canyon Lake officials that the County would cover the increased costs. However, while some funds did accrue from the County, the amount provided did not meet the City’s greatly increased fire service costs as they compounded in subsequent years.
Canyon Lake attempted to address this increasing fiscal calamity numerous times over the years, including invoking a provision of the contract to reduce manpower at the only fire station within the City’s boundaries.
The County at first delayed its response to the City’s request, and then ultimately stated that there would never be a cost reduction or reduction in services under the contract. In response, Bradley Pierce, legal counsel for the City emphasized that, “The County’s latest position is in direct contrast to contract language that has been in place for decades, language that recognizes that the City is a partner with the County in determining the provision of fire services.“
The County efforts to work with the City of Canyon Lake have been disingenuous, at times directly contradicting itself during its discussions with the City. The most glaring example of this occurred when current Fire Chief John Hawkins made a unilateral determination that a reduction in service personnel made by the City in August 2013 was instead a termination of the contract and informed Canyon Lake officials that the station would, instead, close in 12 months.
In June 2014, however, just two months before the station was to be closed, the City was officially informed by the County that the fire station would not be closed and that no request for a reduction in costs would be considered.
Attempts to resolve this issue further degraded during a contractually-obligated mediation wherein the County and CalFire refused to engage in meaningful discussions and made it clear they would not even consider entertaining more realistic options for Canyon Lake.
“This is a totally upside down relationship,” says City Manager Keith Breskin. “The City is contracting for services, valued services, but has no say in the costs of personnel, when and how costly equipment upgrades will be made nor whether staffing at any given time is greater than is needed. Such oversight routinely exists in other cities throughout California. We just want the same opportunity to match our costs with our available revenues.”
The City passed a Utility User Tax (UUT) measure this past November, but this only provides financial breathing room and does not solve the long-term fiscal problems of the City. The County has acknowledged and recognized, but has failed to address, the inequitable balance of costs imposed on Canyon Lake.
Although Canyon Lake is unique, the problem of costs, which increase by a minimum of five percent per year, is one faced by an increasing number of cities. “At the cost growth projected on the City by CalFire, its fire services bill to Canyon Lake will double in 14 years,” Breskin says. “The CalFire model is unsustainable, not just for Canyon Lake but for cities throughout California.”