Santa Paula Council: Fire Department Funding (10E)

By Sheryl Hamlin


Recognizing that the city could not fund itself forever on grants and that the timeframe for the expected windfall from East Area One was elusive at best, a group of citizens formed a committee to fund and promote a council approved sales tax measure on the November 2014 ballot. Measure F failed to meet the 2/3 requirement. However with over 50% of the voters realizing the need for more revenue, this group has continued to bring the issue of public safety to the attention of the council by regular Public Comments at council meetings and continued meetings as a group.


With only twelve months until the November 2016 elections, the time for proposing, communicating and filing a new motion is dwindling. And as Mr. Francis said on Monday, October 19th 2015, SOAR calculates a 14-month timeline for the November 2016 ballot. So essentially Santa Paula has missed the window of opportunity for a November ballot measure, which is one of the points Council Member Gherardi made during the discussion of item 10E.

City Manager Fontes envisions a “firm” with the in-house capability of CPA’s, former fire chiefs, election consultants, municipal financial expertise and legal expertise who will respond to an RFP he has written. The gist of the RFP is shown below:


Part 1, as he describes, includes restructuring, but leaves it up to the respondent to explain how the department would be restructured. Part 2 takes one idea, joining the county fire district, and asks for a cost/benefit analysis of this option. Part 3 involves a review of all ballot initiatives for such funding.

To this end, three people spoke in public comments:

Steve Snead said he had analyzed the numbers and would restructure the department similar to that in Fillmore. He would NOT spend another $50,000 for a consultant saying in-house staff should be able to do this analysis.

Chief Landeros of Fillmore spoke about the history of fire service in Fillmore. He said that although Fillmore has a volunteer department, he has always wanted a full time force, even with minimal staffing. Fillmore has just managed to stay one foot away from insolvency, so the volunteer system must be made to work, a task he has assumed diligently. He said that the area of coverage for the FFD is about 2.2 square miles, while the Santa Paula coverage area is 3.6 now. Mr. Fontes interjected that when East Area One comes on board, the coverage area will be 4.5 square miles, which of course is at least a decade away.

Council Member Tovias asked about medical calls. Chief Landeros said that for the most recent period there were 1054 calls compared to 1500 in Santa Paula between two stations. The Fillmore EMS team is comprised of volunteers with a $300 per medic per shift stipend which is an incentive to volunteer. They have 130 past and present members of the EMS volunteer unit.

Council Member Gherardi dug into Santa Paula’s past financials. Since 1990, when Santa Paula had an all volunteer Fire Department, her graphs show that the police department is underfunded and the fire department is overfunded with respect to city revenue as shown chronologically, so the city must either reduce costs or increase revenue. She has proposed a citizen team to analyze the problem rather than a paid consultant. Council Member Gherardi’s detailed report may be found in the Staff Report for this item, where she gives “pros” and “cons” of various approaches along with her financial analysis.

Assistant Chief Dustin Lazenby spoke explaining the “auto aid” versus the “mutual aid” as it pertains to reimbursement for costs. He said that the fire in the river bottom, which was 85% within Santa Paula, costs $400,000.

Mayor Procter asked if a volunteer fire department is a risk, to which Chief Lazenby replied affirmatively.

Vice Mayor Hernandez said he prefers professionals rather than a citizen team because of impartiality. He also said that he would like to look at all departments in a similar manner. Isn’t that what Santa Paula just experienced with Mr. Sedell and Mr. Catania? For a review of the current budget and its derivation, click here.

Council Member Gherardi said that the schedule is too tight which means that there will be nothing on the 2016 ballot nor will there by anything ready for the next budget cycle. The SAFER Grant give Santa Paula a buffer, but there is no guarantee that a consultant will provide a solution at a reasonable cost. She also said that the RFP schedule is “not workable” and the document is too vague.

No one at the dais asked the Finance Director for the status of the first quarter financials, which ended on September 30, 2015. Was the city under or over budget? Recall that the budget was actually negative with respect to cash flow in the amount of -$190,976. By adding in a carryover from the 2014/2015 General Fund of about $200,000, the budget is slightly positive; however, the carryover fund was not audited nor was not be a one-to-one comparison. For an analysis, click here.

No one at the dais asked what fund would cover the monies for these consultants and how much is too much to spend? Is it $50,000 or $100,000?

Mr. Fontes has obviously forgotten that Mr. Maas of First Southwest has promised his resources for future financing. Why wouldn’t Mr. Fontes ask Mr. Maas to take item 3 and present to the council?

Additionally, Santa Paula is home to a former Los Angeles Fire Chief, a former Fillmore mayor, a former Ventura County Grand Jury representative and many other citizens with extensive experience in municipal finance and public safety. Council Member Gherardi is correct in her assessment that a citizen committee could be formed to make an analysis. Additionally, Santa Paula has retained Dr. Gartner, who has familiarity with Santa Paula’s budget and has vast experience in municipal finance. See his recommendations here. And, of course, Mr. Sedell and Mr. Catania could join the team. Even if a moderate stipend for this work were available, these people could hit the ground running.

The measure passed unanimously, so presumably Mr. Fontes will issue the RFP to the firms he mentioned.

To listen to this discussion, click here and start at 2:58.


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