CL City Council addresses budget challenges

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The Sept. 26 Special Meeting of the City Council included a fairly lengthy PowerPoint presentation given by City Manager Chris Mann that outlined the city’s current budget challenges, which have been caused by the city’s public safety contracts. Mann went into detail the work the city has been doing to explore solutions to this long-standing issue.

The City Council took action on two separate but related items. The City Council directed Mann to send a letter to the country regarding the cooperative agreement for fire protection services and adopted the first reading of an ordinance which will establish a voluntary Emergency Medical Services Subscription Program.

On behalf of the city, Mann sent the following letter to Riverside County Fire Chief Newman.

“Per the terms of the current Cooperative Agreement for Fire Protection Services (“Agreement”) between the City of Canyon Lake (“City”) and County of Riverside (“County”), the city is required to give written notice indicating whether the city intends to enter into a new agreement with the county for fire services and, if so, whether the city intends to request a change in the level of fire services provided under the agreement.

“At a special meeting held on Sept. 26, 2019, the City Council instructed me to submit this letter to you, indicating the city’s desire to enter into a new agreement with the county for fire services; however, given the considerable budget challenges the city is facing, in order for the city to enter into another such agreement, the total cost of the agreement cannot exceed $1.7 million per year.

“The city’s costs for providing fire protection services have increased 79 percent in the past five years, going from a budgeted cost of $1,262,969 in Fiscal Year 2014-2015 to a budgeted cost of $2,259,064 in Fiscal Year 2019-2020. This is particularly alarming considering that these dramatic increases in costs are for staffing the same one fire engine in the same one fire station within the city.

“These increases, along with significant increases from the county in relation to our contract for law enforcement services, have thrown the city’s general fund budget into a structural deficit.

“Although the city contracts with the county for just one deputy sheriff position, and for the staffing of just one fire engine, public safety costs have risen to the point that they now consume 81 percent of the city’s general fund revenue. These increased costs imposed on the city by the county are simply not sustainable.

“Despite the increases in the budgeted costs discussed above, it is interesting to note that the actual costs invoiced by the county for fire services for Fiscal Year 2018-2019 only totaled $1,678,067, which is well below that year’s budgeted amount of $2,204,550.

“This difference of $526,483 between budgeted and actual expenses is significant for an agency with a general fund budget of just $5.2 million. This difference represents most of the city’s current budget deficit.

“The county has demonstrated that it can provide quality fire protection services at an amount that the city can afford. The city desires to enter into a new three-year cooperative agreement with the County that caps expenses at $1.7 million per year.

“If the county is unable or unwilling to negotiate a new cooperative agreement that places a reasonable cap on expenses, please be advised that the city will be unable to enter into another agreement for fire protection services after the expiration of the current agreement.

“While the city is pleased with the fire services provided by the county and Cal Fire, and hopes to continue contracting with the county for these services, we simply cannot operate under a structural deficit indefinitely.

“We appreciate the ongoing positive relationship the city and county have enjoyed, and we look forward to continuing that relationship in the spirit of providing residents with a high level of local government services at a cost that is sustainable.”

In addition to sending the letter, the Council authorized staff to seek the help of a consultant who can assist the city with potentially starting a Canyon Lake Fire Department. This option would only come into play should the county be unable or unwilling to agree to place a reasonable cap on rising costs for fire protection services.

Also on Sept. 26, the City Council adopted the first reading of Ordinance No. 187, which will establish a voluntary Emergency Medical Services Subscription Program, similar to programs currently or previously in place in Murrieta, Corona, Norco, Montclair, West Covina and numerous cities in Orange County and throughout the State of California.

Currently, the city provides emergency medical services as part of its contract with the county for fire protection services; however, the city does not recoup any of the costs for providing the EMS portion of these services. As costs for emergency medical services have skyrocketed in recent years, the city can no longer afford to continue providing these services unless costs are recovered from those utilizing the services.

This will be an optional program by which residents and business owners in Canyon Lake can subscribe for a low annual rate to receive EMS services when needed at no additional cost. By subscribing, residents and business owners can avoid having to pay otherwise significant service fees when EMS services are rendered.

The City Council’s action was just the beginning of an involved process of preparing the new program for implementation, which is not expected to occur until early 2021. The Second Reading of Ordinance No. 186 was placed on the Consent Calendar for the Oct. 2 Regular Meeting of the City Council.

At the Oct. 2 meeting, the item was pulled from the Consent Calendar so there could be further discussion on matter and to give City Council additional time to hear from the public and conduct a fee study in order for the city to accurately determine the amounts that should be charged for subscriptions and for EMS service fees.

The city plans to conduct community workshops to gather public input. Once the program is ready to be implemented, the city will do extensive public outreach to make sure all residents and business owners are aware of the new program.

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