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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

RRU: RIVERSIDE COUNTY: Stand-alone fire department would be costly

Severing ties with Cal Fire and creating an independent Riverside County fire department would increase costs by $46.6 million a year, a new report concludes. 

In addition, setting up a stand-alone agency would require the county to replace three state-owned fire stations at a one-time cost of $11.9 million, the analysis found.
Riverside County has contracted with Cal Fire for fire protection since 1946. The Board of Supervisors ordered the study earlier this year amid concerns over the administrative fee the state agency charges.
Cal Fire proposed increasing the fee at a time when the county faced budget cuts.
"The study clearly shows we have a good deal with Cal Fire," board Chairman Marion Ashley said Monday.
"Cal Fire is functioning extremely well."
It's the second time in five years the county has analyzed the costs of establishing a separate fire department. A 2005 report concluded that remaining with Cal Fire was the county's best option.
The county, through its contract with Cal Fire, provides fire protection for the unincorporated areas, 19 cities and one community services district. Under the current arrangement, it costs $178 million to do so.
With a stand-alone agency, the costs would jump by $46.6 million, the result of staffing increases, county overhead and a $22.7 million boost in pension liabilities, according to the report.
Of the $46.6 million, the 20 contracting agencies would be responsible for $21.4 million; the county would pay for $25.2 million out of its general fund. The report assumed cities would continue contracting with the county.
Ashley said the "sticker shock" alone should be enough to keep the county from pursuing its own department.
"This is not a time to spend $25 million more in general fund money to operate a fire department," he said.
Still, Ashley said studying the issue was worthwhile, given the potential rise in Cal Fire's fees.
At the same time the county began the latest study, officials were negotiating with Cal Fire for budgetary relief. Under recently retired director Del Walters, Cal Fire eventually agreed to provide the county $2.2 million in savings.
Supervisor Jeff Stone, who requested the study, said Monday that analyzing whether to create a stand-alone department was never about the quality of Cal Fire. The report found Cal Fire's effectiveness excellent.
Stone said studying the issue sent a message to Cal Fire that the county has options. He said he believes it contributed in the negotiations between the county and Cal Fire.
"This is an exercise we should do every five years to make sure Cal Fire is kept in check," Stone said.
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