Summer, fall advance may be needed

After listening to several residents oppose, object and question the departure of former Fire Chief Norm Walker, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) commission began the tedious and long process of investigating many options which might contribute to fiscal solvency.

Interim Chief Mike Sherman several times referred to actions that would “stop the bleeding.” The commission is trying to apply triage and stabilize the organization before attempting any major surgery or miracle remedy.

The highlight of the meeting was Sherman’s summary of the financial issues, which he has begun to research and evaluate.

First he announced the good news. Riverside County has just sent another tax receipt check for $119,000. IFPD still owes the county $38,000 from the fall revenue advance, but Sherman believes the current balance (about $380,000) augmented with ambulance and mutual aid revenue will cover the District’s expenses through July.

“We should make it easily to July 1, which is when the longest period of no revenue begins,” Sherman said. “We should have enough cash flow to July, but not a lot past July.” He warned the board that another advance immediately after the new fiscal year begins may be necessary until the whole budget and finance situation can be fixed.

He did identify several projects that could eventually improve IFPD’s cash flow over the next few months. But getting a completed 2010-11 audit is a necessary first step. Commissioner Jerry Buchanan has been working with Rogers, Anderson, Malody and Scott, the San Bernardino accounting firm, to get the audit finished as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile Sherman has contacted several organizations, such as Kansas State Bank, which has the loan on the two engines, and the Department of Agriculture about the possibility of refinancing three loans into one. He is thinking of combing the vehicle loans with the medical equipment loan.

“Its possible we could reduce the annual loan payments from $84,000 to $45,000,” he told the commission. Depending upon the new interest rate, total costs may also be less or not significantly more, he added. The photocopier contract, the emergency medical services contract for Pine Cove and the dispatch contract with Riverside County are all being reviewed. If potential savings exist, Sherman and the commission will try to renegotiate these contracts, although the ambulance contract with the county expires this June.

Sherman also said he would be reducing the hours of Administrative Assistant Rhonda Andrewson to contribute to the overall savings and demonstrate that everybody is part of the solution.

He and Buchanan are working hard to find a replacement for current bookkeeper, Leigh Humphrey, who began as a volunteer, and wants to leave. Sherman is hoping to find the help to create a single set of financial records, “Currently I have three different books and am trying to squeeze the right numbers out of them,” he lamented. Buchanan said that Humphrey now receives about $3,000 monthly.

In the near future, the Commission’s ad hoc negotiation subcommittee will begin meeting with the Idyllwild Career Firefighters’ Association. Sherman reported that the committee had just sent the Association a letter requesting the meetings.

The commissioners agreed to acquire a set of general special district policies to review for application and implementation to the Idyllwild District.

“I’ve looked at the existing policies and many are 14 to 16 years old,” said Commissioner Jerry Buchanan. “Some have new resolutions, but the policy remains unchanged. Our policies don’t have the new legal requirements, such as posting the agenda on our website.”

The policy package will cost about $325 and has already been reviewed by legal experts, Buchanan added.

The public comment period ended about 7 p.m., an hour after the meeting started. Several speakers expressed their desire to engage the commission in a question and answer forum, or as one said “give and take.” But State law, the Brown Act, which is California’s Open government legislation, limits board responses to public questions.

Some of the public comments questioned the commission’s real commitment to saving the district. For example, rejecting former Chief Norm Walker’s recommendation to eliminate paid call firefighters was a potential savings the commission ignored.