Is the Idyllwild Fire Protection District suffering from a financial crisis? Is it or is it not approaching insolvency?

If IFPD were fiscally healthy, most reasonable people would have to ask “How?”. Every other level of government — federal, state, county and school district — is facing an imbalance between its revenues and expenses.

Larger institutions, such as the U.S. Treasury, can borrow to replace the insufficient tax revenue. The state borrows and cuts expenses.

The county and school district balance their budgets through trimming or slashing costs and supplementing revenue with savings (commonly called reserves) from prior years.

So why should IFPD’s situation be any different? The fire district relies on property taxes to a greater extent than the county, which has sales tax revenue too. Yes, property values have fallen and therefore revenue, but more than a million dollars in reserves have dissipated.

Today, the reasons for the financial problems don’t matter. Right now, we need to resuscitate the fire department. Later, a post-mortem can be conducted. And declining property values will play a role as well as other actions.

But the commission’s next steps need to be building financial plans to get them to May, when the next large tax revenue check arrives, and then next December. If the district can survive a year, then we’ll need a two-year plan.

Former Crest Forest Fire Chief Mike Sherman, who has been a fire chief at various departments for 26 years, spent time talking with staff and reviewing the numbers last week.

He concluded IFPD is headed off the track unless action is taken. The most important steps that the commission should take include public education and involvement.

“The public has to know you’re doing your absolute best to fix the problem,” he advised the commission. He also said his conversations with the career staff indicated that they wanted to be part of the solution.

Being part of the solution means more than deferring pay increases for a year. It includes keeping the public informed of actions that involve the budget.

At Saturday’s workshop for example, we learned for the first time that the refinancing of the two newest engines, which the commission authorized in June, never occurred. Other new information also surfaced. The 2010-11 audit has not started, a grant for a new ambulance has been submitted and a “confidential” staff memo regarding the budget shortfalls was prepared a year ago and never disclosed.

Idyllwild may never have the resources to staff and equip a fire department that meets the highest professional standards. The commission will have to find some trade-offs between the objectives of wildland fire fighting, structure fire fighting, fire prevention and emergency medical support.

These deliberations and ultimate choices have to include the public, who has the right to know all the facts and ramifications.

We get confused when some threaten the loss of medical support if CAL FIRE or American Medical Response were involved, yet department officials argue that paying a firefighter more for being a paramedic will destroy the budget.

This is a mixed signal, just as the one sent Saturday when one member of the fire fighting staff expressed willingness to find a collaborative solution; but added, “I don’t really understand the problem.”

The community wants IFPD, but we don’t have the capability to write a blank check.

But you have a responsibility to participate. More people attended the Tuesday, Jan. 3 meeting than Saturday’s budget workshop.

Attend, listen, learn and fix.