Board ratifies new Cal Fire contract

RIVERSIDE – The board of supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved a $595.38-million contract with Cal Fire for firefighting and other services throughout the unincorporated areas of Riverside County and 21 cities over the
next three years.

The board’s 5-0 vote came just two weeks before the county’s existing five-year contract with the state ended.

Under the new agreement, which expires July 1, 2020, the state will be paid $187.35 million for fire protection services in fiscal year 2017-2018 – about $20 million more than in 2016-2017. Just over $199 million will be remitted in 2018-2019 and $208.8 million in 2019-2020. However, according to Executive Office documents, costs will be split between the county and cities that contract with the county for emergency services.

The county’s total outgo at the end of the three-year cycle will come to about $255.9 million, with cities picking up the balance.

The compact guarantees that the county will have just over 1,000 firefighters in service to handle wildland fires, medical response, air and ground rescues, hazardous materials containment, structural inspections and other public safety functions.

As contract terms with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were negotiated earlier this year, board Chairman John Tavaglione criticized the agency for not making concessions on various charges, noting that the county had the largest Cal Fire contract of any jurisdiction.

“The state should be looking at us as the ‘golden ticket,’” Tavaglione said in April. “We expect the state to work with us.”

In addition to salary and benefits increases provided to Cal Fire crews by the Legislature and governor, the county was hit with an escalating annual administrative fee for the state to handle back office operations related to the contract.

The fee will be $20.9 million in the next fiscal year – about 40 percent more than five years ago. In 2018-2019, it will go up to $22.8 million, and in 2019-20, it will be $24 million.

The supervisors considered closing several fire houses and slashing about two-dozen positions to save money but ultimately decided on a more modest savings strategy that entailed cutting five jobs and modifying some operations, including dissolving one of two 24-hour hazmat units.

In the past, the board has informally discussed initiating a study to determine the advantages of establishing a stand-alone county fire department, but to date, no votes have been taken on the matter.

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