Board has budget problem and no easy solutions

Editor’s note: Last week, the Town Crier reported on the proposed savings options that the county’s Fire Chief John Hawkins would present to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors at its March 7 meeting.

In order to find nearly $12 million of saving, Hawkins presented several steps, including imposing a fee for emergency medical services, closing Station 63 in Poppet Flats, and employing more two-person medic squads in place of three-person engines in rural and outlying areas (such as Garner Valley).

The immediate response from the supervisors was neither enthusiastic nor complacent toward accepting Hawkins’ proposals. County Executive Jay Orr introduced the presentation and explained its intent. “We see clouds on the horizon and increased communication with the board is needed to have their direction.”

The county faces several other major budget demands in the next few years, such as the new jail in Indio, changes to the Affordable Care Act and the state returning in-home support services to counties.

President John Tavaglione (District 2) explained the board’s position. “We have to look at all of the options; but $100 million [in more expenses] scares the hell out of me. We have to prepare ourselves for the worst … we’ve always been dedicated to the support of the public’s safety and will continue to be, but it’s tough to balance the budget.”

Third District Supervisor Chuck Washington was concerned about several of the possible options. “We have to tweak several proposals, which are unacceptable.”

As he began discussing the options, Hawkins said directly, “This is a balancing act and clearly important. It involves public safety and a very serious budget gap.”

Implementing the two-person medic squads would have caps, according to Hawkins. In outlying areas, the maximum number of annual calls will be 730. If the unit has more, the department will return it to a three-person engine. One of the four medic squads would be stationed at Station 53 in Garner Valley.

Generally, closing Station 63 was viewed negatively, with some apprehension.

In discussing the Station 63 closure, Hawkins said, “We really don’t want to recommend this; but at Station 63, Poppet Flats, the call load is low.” Supervisor Marion Ashley (District 5) indicated he would not support this action.

During the public-comment period, several Poppet Flat residents came to speak in opposition of the station’s closure.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries (District 1) spoke directly in opposition to the cuts in the Fire Department’s budget. While he offered several alternatives, his concern was the process and the board’s apparent priorities. He firmly stated that he was discouraged that the board was considering cuts to the fire department “before we talk about cutting anyone else that’s not public safety … I believe this board should prioritize services that are most critical to provide protection first … We need to explore other alternatives before the June vote.”