By SAM MORGEN [email protected]
Aug 11, 2020
Brownouts for local fire stations have been taken off the table as county officials plan to use one-time funds to bolster deficits in the Kern County Fire Department budget. Citing the need to save $6.5 million annually, Fire Chief David Witt prepared a plan that would have temporarily closed an average of three fire stations per day for the next year. The plan was considered solid enough that in July, the county’s Human Resources Department set up a negotiation meeting with the local fire union over the brownouts.
However, after the County Administrative Office worked with Witt to mitigate the need for the brownouts, the meeting was called off. Still, the fire union was alarmed by the plan, going so far as to organize a community campaign to keep all stations open. “We will see an increase in life loss, we will see an increase in property loss with delay in response times,” union President Dave Nelson said of the potential for fire station closures. “We do have a minimum staffing that’s required. (The county’s) goal for many years has been one firefighter for 2,500 people and now we’re sitting at one for 3,200 each day.”
With 38 firefighter vacancies along with 24 administrative, the fire department has been taxed heavily with mandatory overtime this summer. The county’s plan had called for 34 stations across the county to be eligible for brownouts based on a variety of factors, including response times, geography and weather. Vacancies would have also played into the decision. A station with three vacancies would have equated to a certain closure, according to a draft of the plan obtained by The Californian.
In the draft, the department said it planned to notify stations up to six days in advance of the brownouts, but admitted the decision to close could be made at the start of a shift based on last-minute vacancies. “I can’t cut certain areas anymore,” Chief Witt said, referring to the maintenance and equipment purchases that have been deferred for years. “We’ve reached the point where if something major happens, we really need to look at the reduction of our workforce. So I have to be prepared for that if that happens.”
The county dipped into its reserves in order to avoid the brownouts. Combined with one-time funding designations from the state, the county’s plan will allow the stations to be open for the next fiscal year, but doesn’t address long-term financial worries. “It’s the equivalent of using the savings account for your kid’s college for your mortgage,” Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said. “You want to try to get into a place where your operational costs are sustained by ongoing revenue sources.”
The Fire Department is funded through its own fund, which has developed a roughly $10 million structural deficit as costs overran revenue. The county has instituted a variety of measures to address the deficit, including cutting back overtime and initiating a plan to increase payments from cities that contract with the Fire Department for services.
The brownouts have created yet another rift between the supervisors and firefighters, with Nelson calling comments made by supervisors and Alsop in interviews and during public meetings attacks against the union. Nelson said Alsop denied a plan was in place to brownout stations during a supervisors meeting last week. “The CAO then went on to denounce that there was ever any plan in place or proposal to close any stations, to brownout any stations, and that we were creating misinformation,” Nelson said, referring to Alsop’s statement during a budget meeting last week. “It was a pretty solid attack.”
Alsop said the CAO’s Office develops many plans for a variety of circumstances, many of which never get before the Board of Supervisors. “If the fire union decides that they want to get way out in front of the board, and way out in front of their own leader, on any number of things, those are calls that they make,” he said. “And I think it’s kind of irresponsible because I think it whips up a whole bunch of unnecessary anxiety and fear over things that aren’t necessarily going to happen.”
Supervisors are scheduled to approve the final budget for this fiscal year on Aug. 25, when questions on brownouts could be settled for the next 12 months.
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.