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First cities agree to pay more for fire services as Kern County seeks to stabilize KCFD

DelanoFire (copy)

In this file photo, structures burn east of Delano. 

In a big step toward stabilizing the Kern County Fire Department, three cities have agreed to pay more for services.

On Tuesday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors will consider approving new fire service contracts with Delano, Wasco and Shafter that are significantly more beneficial to the county than previous versions. Over the next six years, the contracts will gradually increase the amount of money those cities will need to pay for services rendered by KCFD.

By 2027, Delano will pay $1.1 million more each year than it was previously charged. Wasco will pay $383,241 more and Shafter will pay $119,496 more than the previous contract.

The county pursued the new contracts after an independent analysis by the Center for Public Safety Management found the nine cities that use KCFD for fire protection were significantly underpaying for services.

KCFD lost around $10 million each year due to the underpayment, the analysis found. The annual financial loss contributed to a persistent deficit in the KCFD budget that led to a long list of challenges, such as aging equipment and the under-staffing of stations.

Although the Fire Department now has a balanced budget, the new contracts are seen as vital for the department’s ongoing financial security.

“Being able to recoup the full costs of service, that’s a win for the fire department,” said Fire Chief Aaron Duncan. “It’s a good relief to make progress, and we are moving forward together.”

Fearing they would be forced to raise taxes to pay for the new contracts, the cities initially resisted the county’s efforts to raise prices, and several still have yet to agree to new terms. The initial contract proposal was delayed for months after cities asked for more time to analyze the county’s findings. Most went so far as to hire their own consultant to guide them through the process.

Negotiations on the new contracts have taken nearly a year, and more work remains to be done. Arvin, Maricopa, McFarland, Ridgecrest, Taft and Tehachapi have yet to sign new agreements.

Still, the three cities that have accepted the county’s offer may be an indication more will follow. Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said his office expected to bring a few more new contracts to the board in the coming months, and negotiations continued for the remainder of cities.

“(We’re) pleased with the direction that we’re headed, pleased with the collaboration and support we’ve received from contract cities,” he said. “It’s been quite a heavy lift, but an important one that needs to get done, and I am excited for the future of our fire department and the men and women who work there.”

Representatives of Delano and Shafter did not return a request for comment on Friday. Wasco City Manager Scott Hurlbert said in an email to The Californian the city viewed the cost of the new contract as high, but they understood the goals the county was hoping to achieve.

"The new contracts are more consistent between cities, and the method for determining cost is better documented," Hurlbert wrote in the email.

Each City Council unanimously voted to accept the new contracts.

Each of the new contracts would last into 2028.

“These really don’t change the way fire department operations are done on the ground,” Duncan said, “it’s just building that relationship, and looking to expand services in the future.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.