Board approves modest cuts to fire department budget

RIVERSIDE – The board of supervisors Tuesday, April 18, backed away from implementing a deficit reduction plan that would have axed about two-dozen uniform and support personnel in the Riverside County Fire Department, electing instead to eliminate five positions and make several other modest cuts that will only close the agency’s spending gap by half.

The move saves the fire station in Pinyon Pines which potentially could have been closed under a plan presented to the board in March.

“I know there’s a need to resolve which way we’re going, but I have to make a professional recommendation that protects citizens and provides them with the service level they’ve come to expect,” county fire Chief John Hawkins
told the board before its 4-0 vote in favor of the modified cost containment plan.

During its afternoon public hearing, the board weighed options that have been on the table since meetings were held last month by the Fire Ad-Hoc Committee, co-chaired by Supervisors Kevin Jeffries and John Tavaglione.

The committee was formed to find ways of erasing a $12 million spending gap in the fire department budget. Austerity measures discussed last week and brought back for consideration included cutting 11 firefighter positions, 15 administrative positions, deactivating Fire Station No. 43 in Blythe, dissolving one of the county’s two hazardous materials teams, as well as a medic squad in Mecca and reclassifying 50 personnel.

Hawkins persuaded the board to cut only two firefighter positions – one of them currently vacant – and slash only three administration jobs. The board also decided to move ahead with dissolving one of the hazmat teams and the medic squad. However, Jeffries and Supervisor Marion Ashley argued against closing the Blythe firehouse, so that option was taken out of the mix, along with the reclassification proposal, which would have impacted staffing.

The board also voted to enter into a three-year contract with Cal Fire, beginning in June, and not a five-year compact as has been done in the past.

“Any cut is detrimental with the saturation coverage of our personnel,” Cal Fire Local 2881 President Michael Alvarado told the board. “But we understand you’re trying to triage as much as you can. We may be opposed to cuts, but we’re sympathetic to the decisions you have to make.”

The cuts approved by the board, in addition to $2.5 million in cash set- asides for the fire department that will be utilized, will shave the agency’s red ink by about $6 million, leaving a $5.9 million structural gap going into fiscal year 2017-2018, according to county Chief Financial Officer Paul McDonnell.

The departmental deficit stems largely from a jump in labor costs tied to union agreements. The county relies on more than 1,000 state firefighters to respond to emergencies countywide.

Tavaglione remained most unhappy with the administrative fee imposed on the county as part of its contract with Cal Fire. The charge, related to managing back office operations under the contract, is up to $20.8 million – a 40 percent increase compared to five years ago.

“We deserve more attention than we’ve been getting,” the supervisor said. “We have the largest (Cal Fire) contract in the state. We’re not playing games here. We expect the state to work with us.”

Hawkins proposed, as a money conservation measure, moving away from three-person engines wherever possible and utilizing two-person medic patrol units capable of hauling 250 gallons of water to handle some calls in March. But the committee rejected that idea, and Hawkins disavowed it entirely during the April 18 meeting.

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