SAN BERNARDINO, CA –Calling it a necessary step for San Bernardino to recover from bankruptcy, city officials approved a proposal Monday evening to dissolve its 137-year-old Fire Department and turn over fire protection to the county.
After five hours of at times heated discussion, the City Council voted 4-3 to outsource its fire services. Council members Rikke Van Johnson, Virginia Marquez, Jim Mulvihill and Fred Shorett voted in favor, while Benito Barrios, Henry Nickel and John Valdivia voted against.
About 40 people attended the meeting; 12 of them spoke.
Outsourcing is a key element in the city’s bankruptcy plan that was released in May. The so-called plan of adjustment also calls for contracting out other functions, such as garbage collection, in an effort to make city government leaner.
At the outset of the meeting, the city’s bankruptcy attorney, Paul Glassman, warned the council that failure to approve an outsourcing plan could jeopardize the city’s credibility in bankruptcy court.
If the bankruptcy judge and creditors feel the city is not willing to make tough decisions, the city’s case could be dismissed, which would “have a catastrophic effect,” he said. If the city’s case were dismissed, it would lose bankruptcy protection and would be at the mercy of creditors to whom it owes money.
But during the meeting, some council members questioned what the savings would be.
City Manager Allen Parker and a group of city consultants recommended the county as the best option for the city in terms of cost and service.
Centerra, a private firm, also submitted a bid, but Parker and the city consultants recommended against it, saying they were unsure if the firm could enter into mutual aid with neighboring agencies and whether it could handle serving a large city.
The county proposal will have 41 firefighters on duty at all times, operate 11 fire stations and cost $26.7 million annually. The city had been paying its Fire Department $28.6 million, which included 38 firefighters. However, consultants say the county plan will save the city $4.7 million in annual pension, health care and workers’ compensation costs.
The county agency, which is based in the city, operates 58 fire stations over 16,535 square miles of the county’s 20,100 square miles from the Los Angeles County line to the west and the Colorado River on the east. It covers the unincorporated county plus seven cities, including Fontana and Victorville.
But the county proposal also comes with a proposed $143 annual parcel tax that would be levied on property owners, which some residents opposed.
Valdivia said the promised multimillion-dollar savings did not materialize with the county proposal. He called it a back-door attempt to levy another tax on city residents, whom he called the poorest of the poor.
“The taxpayers realize they are being duped and being hoodwinked, and this is just a scam,” he said.
From The Press-Enterprise