Supervisors want to keep three-person fire crews: County fire budget still in red, further changes may come

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The Ad Hoc Fire Committee of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors did not agree fully with the recommendations to save nearly $12 million in the current county fire budget last week.

The biggest difference was rather than using two-person medical crews and reducing the number of three-person engines, the committee recommended maintaining the three-person engine policy. However, it recommended replacing about 49 captains with firefighters and engineers.

The committee did not recommend closing Station 63 (Poppet Flats) but did agree with the proposal to close Station 43 in Blythe and two medic squads at stations 40 in Mecca and 44 in Ripley. The county will still maintain two stations outside the city of Blythe.

The committee’s recommendations reduced the budget shortfall to $4.2 million. The county executive officer and fire chief would develop further savings.

“We don’t support the general concept of moving to two-person, quick-response vehicles,” said Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, 1st District, and a member of the committee. “And the board made it clear it is not closing Poppet Flats. We’re pursuing other ways to try to find savings.”

He argued that the two-person squads were not the equivalent of staffed fire engines.

Third District Supervisor Chuck Washington said, “I think we can do a little better than this. I will have a very difficult time rolling back a municipal staffing structure. I think that’s the wrong direction for us to be heading.”

He also suggested that the county could mitigate the effect of the budget changes on the fire staff with a resolution stating that the decision would be reconsidered in a few years if the budget revenue is restored.

The state and the firefighters’ Association 2881 negotiated a new contract in December. The four-year proposal authorizes raises for from firefighters to battalion chiefs in the range of 11 to 18 percent. The estimated cost of the new contract for Riverside County for next fiscal year (beginning July 1) is $11.9 million.

CEO Jay Orr felt this was too big an amount for the county to absorb without any cuts to its current fire budget. At the supervisors’ March 7 meeting, County Fire Chief John Hawkins offered several proposals to generate $12 million in savings.

Last week, Hawkins said, “I strongly believe the people of Riverside County need fire services delivered with a minimum of three people on every engine. But I also understand clearly that the county has a budget hole.”

Replacing the number of captains with firefighters at 22 stations would save about $2 million annually, according to Hawkins.

Second District Supervisor John Tavaglione, board president and the other member of the committee, spoke firmly: “We’re not playing games. We’ve got real problems. As the biggest contract in the state with Cal Fire, we expect the state to work with us. They have to be cooperating with us.

“We’re an urbanized county and I don’t think Cal Fire looks at us like that,” he added later.

“If we want to fully fund [RCFD], then we have to go to the other agencies for $11.9 million,” Jeffries said at the conclusion of the committee’s presentation.

The board did not make a decision last week and wants to hear about other budget issues first.

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