The Kern County Fire Department is planning millions of dollars in budget cuts in its first real attempt to grapple with a structural deficit that has gone on for years.
Interim Chief David Witt is in the process of completing a budget proposal for next fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.
In the proposal, the department plans to leave unfilled several administrative positions for up to a year, and cut back staffing for its helicopter division in an effort to save $2.2 million.
The administrative cuts will impact positions ranging from battalion chiefs to a maintenance position, and staff that filled nine positions in the helicopter program will be assigned elsewhere.
Although significant, the cuts won’t come near eliminating the $8.8 million structural deficit that is eating away at the county’s reserve funds.
Witt characterized the moves as a first step in a process that could take several years.
“We have to look under every stone to see what we can do to cut our costs,” he said. “And cutting costs could be anything from people to supplies. I’m not anticipating laying anybody off right now, however we’re doing a series of steps to save a considerable amount of money with our budget.”
Witt has only been on the job, even on an interim basis, for a few months. He was appointed to his current role near the end of January after Chief Brian Marshall stepped down to accept a position in the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
“It’s important to me that we’re able to address the financial problems that we have, in addition to taking care of the people of Kern County and my guys,” he said. “And everybody is counting on me to do that.”
The Fire Department’s deficit first emerged in 2008, when property values sank as part of the Great Recession. The deficit was exacerbated in 2016 after the price of oil fell drastically, reducing county revenues for all departments.
Many of those departments were forced to accept cuts by an average of 14 percent as the County Administrative Office attempted to dig the entire general fund out of a county-wide structural deficit, but the Fire Department was spared in the interest of preserving emergency services to the public.
For several years, the county has backfilled the Fire Department budget with reserves from the general fund.
“You just can’t do that forever,” said Director of Countywide Communication Megan Person. “You can only do that for so long before you draw down on the general fund’s reserves.”
This year, the Fire Department is expected to need a $6.5 million contribution from the general fund to stay afloat.
The county is expected to eliminate its deficit by the end of the next fiscal year and the Fire Department is now being asked to institute budget reforms to bring its own finances into alignment with the new reality.
County leaders have attempted to reduce overtime pay by $3.4 million annually as part of a collective bargaining agreement that has been under negotiation for the past two years.
The county says that reducing overtime pay would bring the Fire Department into Fair Labor Standards Act requirements while the firefighter’s union has said the cuts represent yet another sacrifice firefighters have been asked to make.
The two parties recently entered mediation after the county’s “best and final” contract offer was rejected by the firefighters union by a vote of 429 to one.
Witt said a third party would reevaluate the Fire Department’s fee system to potentially make changes, although he was careful to note that no fee increases were planned.
In addition to the deficit, the Fire Department will soon need to replace much of its equipment. The department has not purchased big-ticket items on a large scale for close to 10 years.
“We have equipment that’s in some cases over 20 years old, and over 300,000 miles in some of our frontline equipment,” Witt said.
Yet, despite the challenges, Witt said he sees hope for the department. Plans are being made to complete a five-year plan, and he predicted that in a few years, the department would be in a better place than it was at the moment.
“I feel like we will get better,” he said. “Things will improve.”