Cities across Kern have asked county officials to hit the brakes on a plan to rethink the cost of fire services.
In a letter to county Chief Operations Officer James Zervis, the nine cities that contract with the Kern County Fire Department have requested the county hold off on approving a new methodology that would drastically increase how much those cities have to pay each year for services.
While claiming to want to partner with the county, the cities said they hoped to come up with a solution that fit both Kern County’s and each city’s individual needs. The coronavirus pandemic has placed unprecedented financial strain on the coffers of municipalities across the county, which compounds a multimillion-dollar fiscal deficit that’s lasted for years.
Supervisor Mick Gleason admitted that the cities had been underpaying for fire services for years under the current contract, but said cities needed time to analyze the county’s conclusions. Increasing the cost of fire services to cities is a key part of the county’s plan to rectify the Fire Department budget. That plan, however, could lead cities like Maricopa to go from paying $25,181 to the county to paying $1.5 million over a phase-in period of seven years.
The letter, which was sent jointly by all nine cities, asked the county for more time to review the new methodology. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors granted those cities three months for the review. In a 4-1 vote with Supervisor Mike Maggard dissenting, the board gave the cities until Oct. 20 to negotiate with the county for an alternative payment methodology.
However, an ideological split emerged on the board, with some supervisors wanting to grant the cities additional time to build trust, while others worried the county would just worsen its financial jeopardy by pushing the approval off.
“Our delaying this decision delays our ability to collect the revenue necessary to stabilize the budget of the fire department,” Maggard said Tuesday, adding that some citizens elsewhere in the county may have their fire stations closed as the Fire Department attempts to balance its budget. “That is not fair. It’s not appropriate for the level of protection that people receive to go down because these guys are trying to delay getting this done.”
Supervisor David Couch, however, disagreed.
“I think our process is completely flawed. I think it’s backward,” he said. “I think we need to be getting (the cities) on board, which I think we have started to do, but getting board approval of the methodology and the phase-in period, and then negotiating I think is just putting the cart before the horse.”
In their letter, the nine contract cities said they would likely need to implement tax increases in order to pay for the increased costs of fire services.
“If the unincorporated areas are not asked for some type of increased fair share, all parties need to explain why the increase to the contract cities is the only, best-fit plan,” the letter states.
The city of Maricopa put it more bluntly in its own letter to supervisors.
“If the recommended increase is calculated on a per capita basis, it is even clearer that the citizens of Maricopa are being victimized by this very flawed study,” Maricopa City Administrator Eric Ziegler wrote, referring to a study by the Natelson Dale Group that the county used to come up with new costs. The letter pointed out that cities would pay disproportionate costs on a per capita basis, with Arvin being charged $67.28 per person and Tehachapi paying $105.20.
As both the cities and county move forward into negotiation, there’s no guarantee that the parties will come to an agreement.
“This is about getting full cost recovery for the services that we are providing and any delay is a delay in achieving that,” county Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said. “I don’t know if we are going to be in any different position in 90 days than where we are today.”