Fire authority holds first meeting: Lack of dispatch contract has budget on hold

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The first meeting of the Idyllwild-San Jacinto Regional Fire Authority was Thursday, June 9, in the San Jacinto Unified School District board room. Here, authority Chair Andrew Kotyuk (right), San Jacinto mayor, and Vice Chair Jerry Buchanan, Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission president, preside over the inaugural session.Photo by J.P. Crumrine

The first meeting of the Idyllwild-San Jacinto Regional Fire Authority was Thursday, June 9, in the San Jacinto Unified School District board room. Here, authority Chair Andrew Kotyuk (right), San Jacinto mayor, and Vice Chair Jerry Buchanan, Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission president, preside over the inaugural session. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

The board of the new Idyllwild San Jacinto Regional Fire Authority held its first meeting Thursday evening, June 9. Earlier in the week, both agencies agreed to create the Joint Powers Authority and explore its operation. The board is composed of the five-member San Jacinto City Council and the five-member Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission.

While the session lasted more than three hours, the decision to begin operating the San Jacinto Fire Department was postponed until a future meeting.

After a 45-minute closed session, Michael Maurer of the law firm of Best Best & Krieger, and attorney for the city of San Jacinto, advised the joint board and, directly, the city council members, that an agreement for dispatch service for the fire authority had not been obtained; therefore, the item should be pulled from the agenda.

In its absence, it would be inappropriate for the council to commit city funds. Consequently, another joint meeting will need to be scheduled to approve a budget after a dispatch agreement is secured.

“We are working multiple avenues attempting to secure dispatch,” said Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz. “I’m optimistic we can secure dispatch by the drop-dead date.”

Reitz then went over many issues, such as salary levels, benefits and rules the board will need to approve as the new fire department begins to operate. Reitz offered the current IFPD set of regulations as a model for the JPA and the current agreement with the Idyllwild Career Firefighters Association as the model for an agreement with JPA employees.

“That’s the beauty of participation with you,” said Tim Hults, San Jacinto city manager, commenting on the employee agreement. “The city does not have to start form scratch. It makes sense to use your infrastructure.”

Idyllwild Battalion Chief Mark LaMont presented the proposed budget and discussed each line item for the new board members.

While Reitz and LaMont recommended that the board use Cal Pers for its retirement package, the board asked staff to present an alternative of a defined contributions program for comparison.

Also, the council members asked for a budget modification that would staff two city stations with cross-trained personnel. The $2.66-million budget, which LaMont presented, was sufficient for a five-person staff. Three would cover the fire engine and two the squad every day of the week. “There will be a captain, engineer and firefighter available every day,” said LaMont.

Board Chair Andrew Kotyuk, also San Jacinto City mayor, asked Reitz and LaMont to bring back a budget that assumed four vehicles were staffed consistently. The initial estimate was that this option would increase the total cost by $160,000 annually.

Reitz told the board that interviews will be held with prospective staff in the next few days and a full complement could be hired by June 14, once approval is issued.

Not all of San Jacinto Valley residents were elated with the partnership. In the fall-out of the failure of Hemet’s Measure E (a 1-percent sales tax increase for public safety programs), Paul Raver, Hemet’s mayor pro tem, posted the following comment on Facebook: “It is time for the citizens of this valley to recognize the potential cost and operational advantages of working together. For, public safety districts are the organizational structures of choice for a growing number of jurisdictions.

“While San Jacinto City Council should continue exploring potential benefits to them of affiliating with Idyllwild, they should also explore, along with Hemet and the County of Riverside, the potential cost and operational benefits to the San Jacinto Valley of establishing a San Jacinto Valley Public Safety Special District.” He continued with his frustration of raising revenues for public safety programs. “When looking around Western Riverside County, it should be clear the current public-safety delivery system is collapsing. It is time the county and the cities consider new institutional public-safety relationships that better meet the local control and cost needs of the county and the cities.”

On Tuesday, June 7, both agencies approved the draft Joint Powers Agreement. The Idyllwild Fire Commission approved it in the morning, and the San Jacinto City Council approved the draft at its evening meeting.

The council also directed its staff to continue to negotiate an extension of its contract with the Riverside County Fire Department. The council wants to see the county lower its cost of operations and possibly agree to an extension beyond June 30, but one of less than 112 months. The current contract between the city and the county expires on June 30 and the proposed new contract is for one year with a one-year extension.

The council voted unanimously 4-0, with Council Member Crystal Ruiz absent, to adopt the agreement and authorize establishing the JPA. The council was clearly disappointed with its relation with the county fire organization. Its failure to staff the city’s station 78, in the west side of San Jacinto, has been an issue.

Councilman Alonso Ledezma made this point, “The pressure of competition was needed to get this type of presentation … it’s not fair. We really needed [county fire] and you can’t imagine the heat we got.”

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