Breaking news: Idyllwild Fire votes to join fire authority with San Jacinto; City to vote next week

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The commissioners of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District Tuesday afternoon, voted 4-0 to establish a Joint Powers Authority to provide fire and emergency service to the city of San Jacinto. Commissioner Larry Donahoo was absent.

At a special meeting Monday morning, May 23, the commission voted 5-0 to study a draft agreement and formulate questions for its regular May meeting the next day.

Attending the Monday IFPD meeting was Scott Miller, San Jacinto’s mayor pro tem, who told the board, “This is a very important issue for the life of San Jacinto. Our council has received a clear message from the voters that they will approve no increase in taxes for public safety. We can’t continue to lay off cops and firemen to balance a budget … The city is not here to take advantage of you, but to partner with you.”

IFPD’s President Jerry Buchanan expressed support for the agreement and particularly the use of a JPA to accomplish the effort. “The JPA model is good and we get some say in how service is delivered,” he stated.

Donahoo, who arrived just before the vote was cast, added, “… It’s beneficial for us to be involved, and I see benefits coming to the district and benefits for the other partner.”

Most of the three-and-a-half-hour Monday meeting was a presentation from Idyllwild’s Battalion Chief Mark LaMont on the background of the proposal, the use of joint powers legislation, and an explanation of how San Jacinto and IFPD will benefit.

Currently, the city pays Riverside County Fire Department $2.1 million for fire service consisting of one engine and three staff full-time. This contract expires on June 30, which is the reason for the urgency to approve the JPA. In order to provide the new service, the JPA will have about a month to hire staff and implement operating rules to begin on July 1, Miller told the commission.

The proposal from Idyllwild with its senior staff managing the new fire department, provides a full-time, single-engine fire service of three and a squad of two staff at all times for $1.7 million annually.

The Idyllwild-San Jacinto Regional Fire Authority would be composed of the city’s council and IFPD’s board. Its purpose, according to the draft agreement, would be to provide fire protection, emergency medical and related services within the city of San Jacinto. The city would be responsible for all costs of operating the San Jacinto Fire Department. The fire chief of the authority would be Idyllwild’s fire chief, Patrick Reitz and his salary and benefits would be shared between the authority and IFPD. At the meeting, the preliminary thought has been 40 percent of his time would be devoted to the JPA, according to LaMont.

Other staff would be hired specifically for the SJFD, with the exception of LaMont and administrative staff. Their costs would also be prorated and shared. The initial estimate is that IFPD would incur a cost savings of about $160,000. This would depend on the salaries and portion of time devoted to the SJFD.

The preliminary firefighting staffing plans for 12 full-time firefighters over a week’s time. This crew would staff one engine and one squad 24/7 and the estimated cost is $1.7 million, saving San Jacinto city nearly $400,000, according to LaMont.

The staffing pattern will mirror IFPD’s current operation. However, LaMont stressed that “All employees of IFPD will remain here [in Idyllwild] … we will not be running calls to San Jacinto from here.”

Once the JPA is established it will make the final decisions on how many stations would be staffed. Also the city would provide the equipment, such as an engine and squad, which it already owns. But there will be more equipment, such as apparatus and uniforms to be bought for the first year, he added. This might cost $350,000.

According to the draft agreement, either partner can terminate the agreement with a one-year notice.

“Joint powers” is a term used to describe government agencies that have agreed to combine their powers and resources to work on their common problems. When the public officials of two or more agencies agree to create another legal entity or establish a joint approach to work on a common problem, fund a project or act as a representative body for a specific activity, “joint powers” are being exercised.

In Southern California, the use of a JPA to operate a fire agency occurs in several locations: Orange County, Big Bear, Ross Valley in Marin County and north county areas of San Mateo County. The largest is Orange County’s Fire Authority, established in 1995, and embracing 23 cities and all of the unincorporated areas in the county.

LaMont and Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz urged the commission to act quickly in order for the Idyllwild-San Jacinto Regional Fire Authority to begin operations by July While recruitment for firefighters has already begun, no selection or hiring can be made until the JPA is established.

“You gain in financials and other efficiencies,” LaMont stressed to the commission. Purchasing and maintenance are examples of the other non-financial benefits that may accrue to IFPD, according to Reitz.

JP Crumrine can be reached at jp@towncrier.com.

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