The City Council considered the transfer of fire services to the Ventura County Fire Protection District at Monday’s meeting. Shown is Santa Paula Fire Station 1 located on South 10th Street, built in the 1930s.

City to start process of transferring SPFD to VC Fire Protection District

January 20, 2017
Santa Paula News

Santa Paula has gotten on the freeway of change, but it can exit any time it looks like transferring the hometown fire department to the Ventura County Fire Protection District is not the final destination.

SPFD Chief Rick Araiza, whose report recommended that the city explore the transfer, told the City Council at the January 17 meeting that, “I want to reiterate this is our recommendation today. Our request to move forward is only the first step…it’s like getting on the freeway,” with “opportunities to get off at any time” and retain the Santa Paula Fire Department, founded in 1903, as an independent entity. 

The decision by the council to move forward is the result of more than a year of study and discussion as the fire department lost funding footing; a tipping point was the November 2014 explosions at Santa Clara Waste Water-Green Compass, that led to the retirement of two SPFD firefighters injured by toxic fumes and the loss of a fire engine and equipment valued at about $1 million not yet compensated. Later executives and managers of the company were indicted on felony and misdemeanor charges related to the incident that in all injured dozens of people and led to a formal State of Emergency declaration for Ventura County, on whose property the incident occurred. 

“I take it as extremely important, we’re dealing with 114 years of tradition, and,” said Araiza, “that’s how I started,” in the fire service.

“I’ve been with the department for 31 years and I’m here making a recommendation to move and continue the tradition,” of the firefighting family, a feeling among department personnel shared internally and with other firefighting agencies collectively facing danger.

Araiza noted the many VCFPD personnel in the audience: “Their being here speaks volumes about” their close relationship with the SPFD. 

The SPFD has long been short on money and last year a consultant offered several recommendations including what became the Measure T, a 1-cent sales tax approved by voters in November to help fund public safety, youth programs and roads.

“We’re surviving on a SAFER grant now,” funds allowing full staffing on engines again due to sunset.

Araiza noted the council had directed him to approach the VCFPD about transferring services; they were “definitely interested,” talks started and costs calculated that resulted in a figure of 16.5 percent of city property taxes, about $3.1 million annually, being transferred to the service provider.

Other meetings were held with county tax officials for further calculations and research. 

In fact, said Araiza, the city would have seen more money in its coffers over past years if they used county fire services and the cities enjoy higher returns from sales taxes which would not be affected.

Most importantly, “You have the opportunity the to move into a district that has many advantages we don’t have,” that Araiza asked his assistant chiefs to address.

Vice Mayor Ginger Gherardi asked if “initially” the move would save the city money.  

“It will not only save money on our current budget,” but offer capital improvements, training and other needs of the SPFD.

“We do a very fine job,” said Araiza, but the department does not have the ability to purchase a ladder truck.

If the department had the funds “we couldn’t store it” as the fire stations would not hold the equipment and “we can’t afford to improve our stations,” even to fulfill a recommendation from Homeland Security to improve security.

“We go about trying to make things work,” but, he noted, “It’s been a 20 year struggle as a chief to make things work.”

SPFD Assistant Chief Luis Espinosa addressed personnel issues noting that “From the very beginning” County Chief Mark Lorenz has “made very clear his intentions to keep the rank and file of the SPFD.”

Espinosa also addressed the “process of annexation” to be reviewed by LAFCO to the new department.

If all goes according to schedule, the transfer could be completed in September, a timeframe that would also see the end of SAFER grant funds.

Assistant Chief Mike LaPlant summarized the fiscal aspects and discussion issues and he said transferring service would be “An extraordinary enhancement of services and a savings of money,” reflected by modest rises in property taxes — about 2.2 percent — compared to a projected rise in sales taxes of more than 8 percent.

Personnel would transfer state PERS benefits to the county fire retirement plan.  

Importantly, “You’ll not notice a deficiency of administrative control, you can talk to the supervisors about any concerns or talk directly to the county fire chief,” and there will be a local chief whose “job is to make sure this city’s requests,” and expectations are met.

From the “operational standpoint” there would be a smooth transition: Santa Paula Fire already uses county dispatch, the city would continue the benefits of those already retired, and “that unanticipated expense” of major incidents such as Santa Clara Waste Water-Green Compass and others would be the responsibility of the county.

“I’m amazed everyday to see what your firefighters can do with baling wire and duct tape, and now is the time,” to improve the SPFD with more firefighters, a wider range of services and better equipment.

Following a break Councilman John Procter asked if the city had been charged for mutual response to a massive river fire that ultimately cost $450,000 for added county services.  

Araiza noted that usually mutual aide among county agencies is just that, but if “specialized resources are called in,” such as dozers or aircraft there is the cost to bear.

“You guys have a big decision,” Ventura County Fire Chief Lorenz told the council, noting a final decision is still in the future.

Lorenz said he recognizes “Your fire department was founded in 1903…ours in 1928, our original headquarters was in Santa Paula. We would be good stewards to your community,” and “everything held important to you will be important to us.”

Transferring fire services would be “Good government” and the VCFPD “will promise you exceptional service…”

Lorenz noted the VCFPD has 32 stations, about 600 employees, a $146 million budget, assets of $40 million, and a reserve of about $90 million, “so we obviously have the resources…you will not get lost in the crowd,” and have excellent service.

Noting the history of the SPFD and the pride taken in it by the community, Lorenz said the new fire station planned for the Harvest at Limoneira “Will have a museum that actually pays homage to the Santa Paula Fire Department with Fire Engine 1,” the 1923 Seagrave engine affectionately nicknamed Bertha as a centerpiece of the display.

Gherardi asked how the Board of Supervisor functions in relation to the VCFPD.

“We are a special district,” that requests expenditure permission from the board but Lorenz noted, “We don’t use General Funds, it’s all property taxes and state Cal Fire,” funding. 

“Our interactions with city councils deal with service issues,” and, he added, “We never ask you for more money…”

Councilman Martin Hernandez asked Finance Director Sandy Easley about funding and Councilman John Procter questioned “legacy costs” that would be added.

Easley confirmed that those already retired would still be the financial responsibility of the city. 

Mayor Jenny Crosswhite asked how much is currently, noting the transfer would cost about $3.1 million annually “so our actual cost would be higher…”

Easley said she would have to do research and noted, “The unfunded liability for fire is about $9 million,” being paid at a rate of about $500,000 annually.

“Anything else that would have to be negotiated out?” asked Gherardi.

“It would be a conflict if I negotiated my own contract so there have been no formal negotiations for my position,” said Araiza.

“What you decide tonight would prompt negotiations,” of Araiza’s contract said City Manager Jaime Fontes.

Crosswhite asked that staff make sure when they next report “I understand the economy of the scope of what we get and don’t get” to fill in holes she said are represented by such issues as newly approved higher fire fees that will be lost to the city. She also repeated her request for workers comp legacy and pensions.

Gherardi suggested capital costs “We have been avoiding” be analyzed as “We should be talking apples to apples…”

Hernandez made the motion supported by the full council to start the process for transfer.

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