Higher fees approved: ambulance, mitigation and permitting
In a meeting highlighted with the announcement that the fire chief has resigned (see accompanying story), the Idyllwild Fire Protection District commission also attended to many other business issues and decisions at its March 26 meeting.
Besides the usual financial and incident report statistics, Caltrans briefed the commission about the highway situation, and Acting Chief Mark LaMont discussed nearly a dozen issues, including resuming forced abatement, the reinstitution of some sort of emergency siren and a line of bank credit.
A resumption of the forced abatement procedure, which the district abandoned more than a decade ago after intense citizen pressure, was not on the agenda. LaMont showed the commission examples of post cards, which he planned to mail to property owners, alerting them that fire abatement inspections were starting in April.
However, Commissioner Henry Sawicki asked about IFPD’s legal liability if a property failed abatement and, subsequently, a fire on it damaged other properties. Commissioner Ralph Hoetger argued that the post cards should notify property owners that forced abatement would be imposed this spring for properties failing two inspections.
“Ultimately, it’s an obligation we have to see through to completion,” LaMont replied. About 3,800 parcels are within IFPD, and in 2018, about 300 did not fully comply with abatement inspections. However, he added, that is a very good compliance percentage compared to most fire districts in the state.
President Jerry Buchanan added that the district “… could have someone do it and pay them after the tax bill …” was collected. And LaMont concurred. A lien for the cost of abatement would be applied to the property owner’s tax bill. After that was paid, the contractor or abatement firm would be compensated. IFPD would not incur any new or added expenses.
Idyllwild resident Tom Paulek supported the idea and urged the commission to reconsider the forced abatement policy. “If you educate folks, the great majority would comply,” he opined.
A resumption of a public emergency alert or notification system was on the agenda. This issue has been revived since the July Cranston Fire was over.
The department formally used a siren to signal volunteers to come to the station. That evolved into a community notice. This fall, people have urged resuming the use of a siren.
However, declaring a public evacuation is the responsibility of law enforcement, LaMont told the commission, and he has had several conversations with law enforcement agencies. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is concerned about how residents and visitors react to a siren, especially at night.
He summarized those concerns as possible panic, chaos, costs and responsibility.
People would have no information on the cause of the emergency nor its location. It is possible greater panic would ensue and some people would drive toward a fire rather than in opposite direction.
“We don’t want to send people into harm,” LaMont affirmed.
Mike Feyder, president of the Mountain Disaster Preparedness group, attended and indicated his group would be willing to support a community discussion on the merits of the siren and possibly how to educate the community.
And Paulek argued that a siren would discourage panic, which he felt seeing the smoke over Doubleview Drive in July.
Another aspect on which IFPD has been making progress is the use of local emergency AM station WNKI. The department will use the station to keep the public notified. Also, IFPD has consulted with Caltrans about installing more signage along highways 74 and 243 alerting visitors to the availability of WNKI at 1610 AM, during emergencies.
In other issues through February, the finance report indicates that revenues have exceeded costs by nearly $112,500. Four months remain in the current fiscal year. And according to the balance sheet, IFPD currently has cash available.
The proposed budget for fiscal year 2019-20, which begins July 1, will be on the April agenda, he added. The initial draft projects a $45,000 increase in expenditures. The draft estimates total costs of $2.36 million and a net positive balance of $92,000.
The commission also unanimously approved resolutions to increase fees. Fire prevention and mitigation fees proposals were discussed at the February meeting. Ambulance fees also were raised about 5 percent, the annual adjustment (see accompanying table).
In response to the adequacy of the ambulance fees, LaMont replied that IFPD’s fees are based on the time and staff necessary to perform the work.
“IFPD charges enough, but doesn’t capture enough,” he noted. Medical agencies, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Medi-Cal and some insurance firms, limit what they will reimburse for emergency medical costs. Transportation is a major activity for which IFPD does not collect its actual costs.
Also, the board approved a resolution to continue the parcel (unit) fee of $65. While the commission has invested much time discussing its strategy to secure voter approval to increase this fee, that issue was not addressed at the meeting.
In addition, LaMont provided the commission with information about the possibility of securing a line of credit with a new bank. While IFPD currently has one with local bank BBVA, the commission wants to evaluate alternatives.
And Buchanan pulled the item relating to Department General Counsel. IFPD is not seeking new legal support.