State budget crisis puts the squeeze on firefighting

State budget crisis puts the squeeze on firefighting

20 May 2009

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USA — With the 2009 California firefighting season already underway, the state this week finally whittled down its debt to Sonoma County firefighters for their help on last year’s major wildfires.

But the failure of this week’s state propositions will likely bring budget cuts that could leave fire chiefs having to make a tough decision: Can we afford to send out firefighters to help battle a blaze?

The Windsor Fire District on Monday got paid $120,000, apparently the last large amount owed in the county from a countywide bill of more than $1 million owed by the state since February.

The payments were for help local districts gave to battle fires far from home; this year crews have already assisted in Santa Barbara to help fight the Jesusita fire. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced plans to borrow as much as 8 percent in property tax money from local governments and special districts – such as fire districts – and that will have an impact.

Rancho Adobe Fire Chief Frank Treanor said an 8 percent cut would be about $219,000 to his budget. Coupled with lower tax assessments, that could necessitate the closure of a fire house.

“How can I justify having to close a firehouse a couple times a week, or all the time, to citizen’s here and be able to send an engine company down to god knows where?” Treanor asked.

“We may not be able to play in the mutual aid arena next year,” Treanor said.

Cal Fire relies on help from local agencies to battle wildland blazes. A spokesman for that agency said the governor remains committed to funding emergency services, but that it’s too early to say what affect Tuesday’s vote will have on reimbursement rates or on levels of service.

“We don’t have any idea what that’s going to look like. It’s an unknown at this time,” said Daniel Berlant with Cal Fire.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Bruce Varner said with the elections’ failure, “we are all going to suffer.”

This spring Santa Rosa already avoided the possibility the city would shut down a fire station due to budget problems. He said if the state proceeds with taking money from local government, he expects closing a fire station to be back on the table.

Varner said his agency, because of its size, will continue participating in the state’s mutual aid program as long as state reimbursements continue.

All agencies want to participate, several chiefs said.

“We try to give as much as we can,” said Windsor Chief Ron Collier. “If we have a big fire in Sonoma County, we all want and need to have those people come to us. Just like they need us to come to them,” Collier said.

Forestville Chief Dan Northern said an 8 percent property tax cut for his budget would be about $75,000.

“I don’t believe it would prevent us from responding ‘out of county’ this year,” Northern said. “However, we are also projecting a three-and-a-half percent reduction in property taxes in fiscal year 09/10” due to reduced property assessments.

The combination of the two reductions could have an impact on the 2010 fire season, he said.

“Without adequate reserves to fund the cost of the response it may not be financially possible to send the resources (in 2010,)” Northern said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Most firefighters who head away to fires, such as those in Southern California and Mendocino County last year, get paid immediately by their departments for their time.

The districts then bill the state for their time and for the cost, as well as the cost to backfill for the missing firefighters.

Those bills go through a lengthy process, including through the state Office of Emergency Services and Cal Fire before a check is issued from the state.

In the past, payments typically took 3-6 months, chiefs said. This year some payments came 10-11 months after billing. Several agencies said they received final checks in late April.

“We did $294,000 worth of business with them and received the last payment” about three weeks ago, said Petaluma Fire Chief Larry Anderson.

Forestville still is waiting $25,000, down from $100,000 owed as of February.

Windsor’s final payment this week covered work done by firefighters on last June’s lightning fires in Northern California, said Collier.

The state’s delay was only partly due to California’s financial constraints.

That was coupled with the long run of huge fires last season and that they crossed two fiscal years, complicating the payment process, chiefs said.

Some smaller agencies had a harder time than larger agencies with the longer delay. They don’t always have a big enough budget cushion to wait out the reimbursement, Northern said.

This year’s fire season started in early May with a huge wildland fire in Santa Barbara.

Several local firefighters went south to help.

“We’ll be billing the state,” Varner said.

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