Council: Consultant fire study RFP
approved but not without discussion

October 23, 2015
Santa Paula News

The City Council  grappled with how to address fire department funding at Monday’s meeting finally deciding after much discussion to seek outside help for a study, not a move welcomed by all council members.

The decision to hire a consultant for a fire study came after extensive discussion and questions to staff as well as comments by Fillmore Fire Chief Rigo Landeros.

A separate agenda item comparing the cost of the largely volunteer Fillmore Fire Department to the Santa Paula Fire agency had been pulled last week.

City Councilwoman Ginger Gherardi wrote an extensive study of alternative funding methods that was part of the council’s report for Monday’s discussion on the future of the fire department.

Money is driving the issue and whether restructuring the SPFD, increasing funding — parcel or special tax — or contracting with Ventura County Fire are possibilities for future action. 

City Manager Jaime Fontes told the council that “possible long-term sustainability and services” would be studied as well as contracting out services and “options” including “all election measures” for raising revenue.

The firm doing the study will have to have consultants with fire experience, “inside experts” on ballot measures among other skills.

“There are probably very few firms that can do this,” Fontes noted, but it’s important to have an outside consultant without “a dog in this fight...”

“This issue has been floating around for many years,” both for police and fire said Steve Smead during public comment. 

He said the city should explore “moving some money around” and spending “smarter” including doing the study in-house.

“Putting another initiative on the ballot is not a smart thing to do,” and Smead urged that the council not “spend money on an outside consultant...”

Landeros said every fire agency “is extremely proud of what they do for their communities” but comparing Santa Paula to Fillmore is “talking two different animals...”

When he took over Fillmore Fire as chief in 2009 he wanted at least minimal full-time staffing and the FFD is “trying to gain employees as well” primarily full-time captains and engineers to later be joined by full-time firefighters.

Mayor John Procter acknowledged the report done by Gherardi who said she went through budgets and operations since 1990 for police and fire.

“If you draw a straight line” from the early days to the present Gherardi said the police budget — although much larger overall — has not made gains at the same rate as fire.

“Compounding the problem,” is lagging retail sales, increasing costs and a lack of sales tax.

They must “either reduce costs or increase revenues,” said Gherardi, who noted she worked with City Attorney John Cotti, Finance Director Sandy Easley to compile the analysis.

The council asked SPFD Assistant Chief Dustin Lazenby various questions about operations including mutual aid and costs of same.

Billing for local mutual aid he noted is not common, but using the example of a hazardous material spill that would require a county Haz-Mat response Lazenby said the city could attempt to recover costs from the responsible party.

However, if such a spill occurred on public property and the responsible party could not be found the city would be responsible if the county did bill for response payment.

Incident  she  noted  have  various classifications that can trigger cost or even reimbursement.

Gherardi urged the council to create a committee with several council members and the community to study funding issues: “If we go through the Request for Proposal process we probably would not get any information back until the spring...meaning next fiscal year,” and budget planning would be hamstrung.

Procter asked Lazenby about aspects of converting the SPFD to a volunteer department, a suggestion first brought up and promoted by Councilman Jim Tovias.

Lazenby said the “biggest issue” is emergency response time.

“For any disaster we do want a small army at the ready and prepared to be able to respond to those issues...we’re not new to the volunteer system,” but, when the SPFD was paid-call, Lazenby said he “stood in the station waiting for people to show up” for duty — and they didn’t.

Landeros noted that when Fillmore received major earthquake damage in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake he was a member of the Ventura Fire Department. 

“We were dead in the water for six to eight hours,” in Fillmore which was largely isolated in the aftermath of the quake.

“The spirit’s there but how ready do you want to be?” he asked the council. “Can it [a volunteer department] work? 

“Yes,” said Landeros  “we make it work” in Fillmore that is about half the size and population of Santa Paula.

Lazenby noted that if the city did move ahead with the consultant’s report it should include the present department’s equipment and training needs as well as a five-year plan.

“No doubt we need more public safety,” said Vice Mayor Martin Hernandez. “But fire is public safety too,” and when the SPFD was paid-call volunteer “Protection was much less than what we have now. The response times these guys are doing,” at the present matter of minutes is superior.

“This is cheap insurance, you know about insurance Councilman Tovias,” Hernandez said to the insurance agent. “Our fire department gets there in minutes now saving property and lives...”

After several council comments about supporting an outside consultant Gherardi noted that the schedule mentioned in the report did not appear “workable” because an RFP must be prepared.

“This is the RFP,” said Fontes to the startled Gherardi.

“That is?” she asked. “This is the scope,” of the study.

“The briefer the better,” said Fontes, “the meat of it is the three-prong approach,” of what areas will be studied.

“As long as we acknowledge that we won’t be dealing with the financial issues for another year,” said Gherardi, “that’s the way it goes...”

She did recommend that “someone outside the city” sit on the panel that would be considering consultant selection.

“This is something that has to be beyond reproach, as far as looking from the outside,” said Procter. “I am very much in favor of having a third party.”

Ultimately, the council agreed to have an outside organization do the analysis.

“There is not s timeline,” Gherardi noted, but Procter said the direction to staff would be to proceed quickly.

The council also was told that the study portion on a revenue raising ballot issue would include both police and fire.

There was no estimated cost of what such a study would cost.

Funding for the SPFD is precarious depending on a SAFER grant of about $1 million to fund five full-time firefighters for two years; it is the second SAFER grant the city has received.

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