Idyllwild Fire Commission discusses budget issues during Jan. 7 workshop. Commission President Jeannine Charles-Stigall listens to Vice President Dr. Charles “Chip” Schelly (second from left) and Commissioner Jerry Buchanan (second from right) talk about the finances. Former Crest Forest Fire Chief Mike Sherman (right) reviews his notes before making his presentation. Photo by J. P. Crumrine

After a nearly four-hour budget workshop on Saturday, Jan. 7, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) commission recognized the district’s perilous financial condition.

“The best case is November, but it could be August or as early as April,” former Crest Forest Fire Chief Mike Sherman told the commission, when referring to the possibility of the district’s bank account reaching zero dollars.

Sherman, who spent time with staff and investigating IFPD’s financial health, did not take long to deliver the warning to the full commission. He estimated that the department’s current budget projections are between $50,000 and $200,000 off the mark.

“In the public sector, reserves less than 20 percent [of operating costs] are bad. The community should take this very seriously. I wouldn’t use ‘insolvent’ or ‘bankrupt,’ but it could change very quickly,” he said.

He advised the board to first thoroughly understand the problem and then take time to develop a strategy to protect and revive the department. This should be done with the community’s involvement.

“We’re here to understand how big is [the problem],” Sherman told the commission. “That will drive your actions to correct it and stay in business. You’re spending way more than you take in.”

Commissioner Jerry Buchanan also advised against use of the word, “bankrupt,” but made it clear the commission will have to get control of the finances.

“What do we want to do and how do we do it?” he asked rhetorically. “The current situation doesn’t’ give me confidence.”

He stressed to his colleagues that one of their priorities should be building a reserve for future emergencies.

Whatever options the commission considers, it must acknowledge that, like a school district, which is labor intensive, the largest portion (70 to 85 percent) of the IFPD budget is for salaries and staff benefits.

No discussion of specific steps occurred during the workshop, but a general strategy began to unfold. The ad hoc renegotiation committee, composed of commissioners Jerry Buchanan and Pete Capparelli, will send a letter to the Idyllwild Career Firefighters Association very soon. They will request that the Association and committee meet to renegotiate the current memorandum of understanding between the association and the district.

Another ad hoc committee will be established to determine if there are any major safety, ambulance, gear or station issues that need resolving, need money and are not in the current budget.

These and other items, such as amending the district’s meeting schedule and further discussion with Sherman about the possibility of hiring him as an interim chief, will be discussed at the commission’s January regular meeting at 6 p.m, Tuesday, Jan. 10.

IFPD commission may meet twice monthly
The fire district’s financial issues have breadth and depth. The Saturday budget workshop lasted four hours. Consequently, until these problems can be mastered and controlled, the fire commission will consider meeting twice a month on the second and fourth Tuesdays.

If the proposal, which is on the agenda, were approved, the second regular meeting of this month would be 6 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 24.