By Ryan Hagen, The Sun Posted: 07/14/17, 10:49 PM PDT
SAN BERNARDINO >> Since county firefighters took over the city’s fire and emergency service one year ago, the average time for firefighters to respond to a 911 call has fallen dramatically, dropping more than 3 minutes from 9:50 to 6:07.
That 38 percent improvement compared with 2014, the last year with data available, contradicts some critics’ prediction that service levels would worsen under county management and fulfills one of the main promises of the controversial annexation, which took effect the first week of July 2016.
But other effects are more ambiguous, even now that a full year of data is available.
“That response time is critical — it can save lives,” said Assistant Chief Dan Munsey, who has overseen fire services for the city since February. “At the same time, I think there’s been some significant challenges. We’ve developed short- and long-range plans for that.”
When the city’s consultant, Andy Belknap of Management Partners, presented the plan in August 2015, he projected “an $11 million contribution to solvency.”
That was downgraded to about $7 million by the time of the vote, and now city officials say it’s difficult to put a single number on how the outsourcing has affected the city’s bottom line, given the combination of lost revenues and savings. Reconciliation with the county is ongoing, according to city officials.
The annexation added a new tax on each parcel of land in the city, which was $148 per year for fiscal year 2016-17 and can increase up to 3 percent per year.
And all of that money goes directly to the county every year, no matter how much the city’s property values grow in the future.
The city’s payments to the county — all of its regular property tax and about one-third of its so-called Vehicle License Fee property tax — were negotiated as approximately what fire services cost annually, according to City Manager Mark Scott.
In the fiscal year that ended in June 2016 — the same time the county took over fire services — the city spent $29.8 million on fire services, compared with $400,000 in the 2016-17 year that just ended. That $400,000 is payments for five firefighters on medical leave who remained the city’s responsibility, and is down to one firefighter now, according to Dixon Mutadzakupa, the city’s budget officer.
Since the annexation went into effect, the city exited bankruptcy after nearly five years. Its budget for the current year includes a small surplus, but officials say they still don’t have the money to invest in many important areas.
Mayor Carey Davis said the fire chief is making important improvements, and residents he speaks to are pleased with the fire service.
“At my Evenings with the Mayor, it’s not something anyone complains about,” Davis said. “I understand response times have decreased, and (Munsey’s) moving an engine to Station 221 (200 E. Third St.), which will be more of a benefit.”
Firefighters, who had a contentious relationship with the city before the outsourcing, also now seem to be happy, Davis added.
Some residents, though, continue to see the move as shortsighted and chafe in particular at the new tax, which was added without a vote.
“The whole LAFCO process is a slap in the face of the democratic process,” said resident Kathy Mallon. “Now they’re going to do it in Upland again. It’s pretty much a money grab as far as I see it. It’s a money grab on the back of taxpayers, where we have no chance in hell to meet the requirements of their process.”
While California law normally requires an election to institute a tax, that isn’t the case when residents annex themselves into an existing area that has a tax, such as the county’s fire protection district. Instead, the Local Agency Formation Commission — LAFCO — mails landowners seeking protests. An election is held if a protest is received from at least 25 percent but less than 50 percent of the registered voters, or if 25 percent to 100 percent of the number of landowners — who own at least 25 percent of the total land value — submit written protest. (A protest from a majority stops the annexation.)
The plan also requires approval from the City Council, which passed it 4-3 last year. Several of the council members who opposed it then remain strong opponents.
“We sort of gave away the farm in many ways,” Councilman Henry Nickel said, referring to the agreement to give property tax revenue to the county. “I don’t think the county wants to see the city go into bankruptcy, but if they deprive of us of a significant portion of our property value, there’s no real incentive to increase our property tax base.”
Councilman John Valdivia, who also strongly opposed the move, declined to assess it in detail this week.
“Response times will be longer, taxes will be higher, and fire stations in minority communities are still (going to be) shuttered and closed,” Valdivia said in 2016.
Asked this week if he would have done anything differently if he had known that response times have been shown to be shorter, Valdivia said he appreciated the hard work of firefighters.
“That’s really all I have to say. I think we need to look forward, not backwards,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of our fire professionals, and I have nothing but praise for them. By all accounts, they’re happy, and I’m certainly happy.”
Councilman Fred Shorett, one of the most vocal advocates for outsourcing, said he was pleased with the improved service, although he stressed that he didn’t want to disparage any of the firefighters who had formerly worked for the city.
“I think the employees and we are better served with a larger organization,” Shorett said, adding that fire officials continued to work closely with the city’s elected officials.
“I actually called (Assistant Chief Dan) Munsey today, and he called me back within two or three minutes and was very understanding and very responsive,” he said.
And Shorett blasted those he said had made empty threats about outsourcing.
“That’s kind of John’s MO, to talk about things without really having facts,” he said. “And the facts come out later.”
Former San Bernardino firefighters say the change has been good for them.
“When you take a Fire Department that’s 138 years old, with a lot of tradition, it’s bittersweet,” said Capt. Steve Tracey, a longtime city firefighter who now does training for the county. “With the one year anniversary, it’s kind of ironic, because now Upland is going to be transitioning in, so now a lot of the former city folks are helping with that transition to make sure they’re as welcome as we are.”
Upland cleared its final hurdle to annex into the county Fire Department this month, and will be transferred July 22.
“It’s been fairly seamless for us, regardless of the logo on the rig, and there’s a lot of opportunity in county fire,” Tracey said. “I think there will be for them, too.”
The 10 fire stations in San Bernardino responded to more than 41,200 calls for service between July 2016 and June 30, 2017, according to Fire Department data — significantly more than the 30,000 that city firefighters responded to the year before.
“That’s among the busiest in the state of California,” Munsey said, attributing most of the increase to the county responding to the less-serious medical calls that the city had handed off to the private ambulance company American Medical Response since 2014. “It might be a lower priority emergency, an alpha or bravo, but if the patient is untreated it turns into a more critical incident.”
That heavy call load cuts down on time for training and for community events, he said.
But the biggest challenge is the condition of the equipment inherited from the city, according to Munsey.
Seven of the city’s 10 fire stations need immediate replacement, he said, while the funding model expects those replacements to take 21 years.
“The station replacement alone is the biggest nugget that I’ll have to crack,” Munsey said. “They’re modulars built in the ’70s, and nobody expected them to still be in use now. …. They’re built for smaller apparatus, built without earthquake standards, built using asbestos, and as we’ve been digging … (we’re finding) large amounts of asbestos and black mold.”
One station, on Kendall Drive near University Avenue, closed in February when repair efforts discovered mold, and it remains closed.
A new fire station costs about $3.5 million, according to Munsey.
Already, though, the department has spent $1 million in apparatus repair and maintenance that was mostly deferred because of the city’s financial difficulties, according to the department.
An additional $272,000 was spent on medical equipment upgrades including modern life-support monitors, and $150,000 on structural improvements to the fire stations.
Staffing, which is already two higher than before by three firefighter/paramedics and three firefighters, is expected to add an additional squad soon.
That came after a call from county Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who represents part of the city.
“The city of San Bernardino is producing a (emergency) call volume on or about 40,000 calls a year. The city of Fontana is producing on or about 20,000 calls per year,” Gonzales said at the county budget meeting in June. “San Bernardino has the same staffing that Fontana has, minus one. … There could be liability on down the line.”
Even before those additional resources come, the city is seeing improvements because of the ability to draw from nearby stations and the county’s other resources, according to Munsey.
That’s part of the reason for the much-faster response times, he said.
“And it’s good planning, it’s using computer modeling to see where our fire engines should be and deploying them,” he said. “Now we can start to make other changes. So the future is exciting for us. With the (parcel tax) funding, it provides a very stable platform for us to improve our responses and continue to serve the residents better.”