Calif. city to disband 114-year-old fire department

The council voted 4-1 to get coverage from a larger fire district

By Arlene Martinez
Ventura County Star

SANTA PAULA, Calif. — The Santa Paula City Council on Monday approved a resolution that, once finalized and in effect, effectively disbands its 114-year-old fire department.

The tax-sharing agreement sets the terms for getting coverage from the larger Ventura County Fire Protection District. The district is paid for from property taxes, and Santa Paula will turn over 79 percent of what it gets once it joins, according to the agreement.

Santa Paula Fire Department (Photo/Facebook)
Santa Paula Fire Department (Photo/Facebook)

The district currently includes unincorporated areas, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Camarillo, Ojai and Port Hueneme.

The council voted 4-1 on Monday night to approve the tax-sharing agreement. Mayor Jenny Crosswhite dissented, saying she still had "some issues" with Santa Paula paying the highest share, percentage-wise, of any city in the district.

Santa Paula will get also get significantly fewer dollars back after paying for fire than other member cities, a combination of paying the highest percentage and having a low tax base.

Crosswhite said she also had concerns with the annexation because the city would now be very dependent on the sales tax.

She said she brought up those concerns during a 4-hour special meeting on Saturday, which included a detailed discussion of the fire decision.

"You can hope that with (city population) growth there will become more opportunities for people to be buying things. There's also national trends that are showing more people are shopping online and so it's hard to say what will happen with sales tax in the future," she said.

Whether the city kept its fire department or went with county nets the same result, at least in the short term: a more than $2 million budget shortfall, Crosswhite said.

That's without factoring in spending from a one-cent sales tax that voters approved in November. Measure T lasts 20 years is expected to generate $2.1 million annually.

According to the ballot measure, the tax was for police, fire, roads and youth services. Fire will no longer be part of the equation, officials said.

Through 2030-31, the move will cost Santa Paula millions more than if it had retained its own fire department and gave raises of 2.5 percent in the first year and 5 percent every year after that, consultants hired by the city to study the move and the overall budget found. That's mostly from the higher salaries and benefits county firefighters receive, which was a major selling point for some on the council -- they wanted fire staff to be paid significantly more than they were getting.

The county also offers more services -- many county firefighters are paramedics, for example, whereas none in Santa Paula are, acting Fire Chief Mike LaPlant previously said. The department has more training opportunities and is active in the community, officials said.

Conversely, keeping fire and trying to get to 90 percent of the county salaries would have cost Santa Paula millions more over that same time period.

Over months of discussions, the cost of moving to fire had varied. The consultants used 17 assumptions in determining what it could cost Santa Paula.

According to 2017-18 budget projections by Mike Sedell and Frank Catania that were posted online for Saturday's meeting, the city would have a deficit of $2.4 million if it went with county and be short $2.3 million if it kept its fire department.

Resident Richard Rudman on Monday encouraged city and fire officials to do outreach in the community to give them accurate information on the move and the associated benefits.

There are many benefits to annexation, he said, but they don't come for free.

LaPlant said there was an FAQ (frequently asked questions) ready to go and fire officials were available to speak to any community group that was interested in learning more about the move. They'll also do other public outreach.

The tax-sharing resolution must be approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. The city will pay a pro-rated amount for fire services for the amount of time this fiscal year it's with the district, which must be agreed upon by the city and county, and then it all heads to the Ventura Local Agency Formation Commission for final approval.

That could happen by late fall.

Copyright 2017 Ventura County Star

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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