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Kern County firefighters work in smoke so thick that at times the advancing flames could not even be seen to extinguish during a September fire.

A long-simmering battle over the cost of fire services is showing no signs of slowing as the Kern County Board of Supervisors prepares to approve a plan that could dramatically alter the financial well-being of many cities throughout Kern.

In the past, the board has been hesitant to increase the amount the Kern County Fire Department charges the nine cities in Kern that contract with the county for its services. In July, supervisors delayed a plan that would have increased the cities’ costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars each, hoping negotiations could find an alternative solution.

However, about three months later, the cities appear no closer to accepting the county’s plan. In a letter to supervisors, Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said cities are asking for more time to analyze the operations of KCFD, presumably to specifically tailor or not contract with the county for fire services.

Under the county’s proposal, Arvin, Delano, Maricopa, McFarland, Ridgecrest, Shafter, Taft, Tehachapi and Wasco would all have to pay significantly more for fire services. These cities do not have fire departments of their own, and pay KCFD to ensure the safety of their residents.

The CAO’s Office claims the current contracts are heavily favorable to the cities. The county has commissioned two studies that show KCFD charges cities far less than the cost of its services in those areas.

With a new contract, cities such as Arvin could see their annual costs increase from $624,192 to around $1.5 million, scaling up gradually over a seven-year period.

The cities have pushed back strongly against the county’s plan, saying in a joint letter in July some of them would not be able to pay for the higher costs without asking their residents for a tax increase. Their pushback successfully delayed any board action for several months, but now the cities want even more time to consider their options.

All of the cities except Maricopa have hired a consultant, Citigate, to help them navigate the county’s proposal. After two in-person meetings in October, Alsop’s letter states the cities continue to object to the county’s proposed methodology for increasing costs.

On Tuesday, Alsop wrote Citigate notified the county that the cities wanted more time to analyze aspects of KCFD before deciding whether to contract with the county or simply move on.

Nevertheless, the CAO’s Office is proposing supervisors move forward with approving the plan to change the contracts. Alsop’s letter states the decreased city costs divert much-needed funds away from other county-sponsored services, such as public safety, libraries and parks.

“The contract cities and their consultant do not dispute these facts, nor have they proposed an alternative cost allocation methodology or approach for the county to consider,” Alsop wrote.

The CAO’s Office has proposed allowing the contracts to expire in 2022, giving cities a buffer before fire services end.

Any delay in proceeding, the CAO’s Office warned, could just extend the amount of time the cities continue to financially drain the department.

“This recommended approach would achieve setting a clear path today for the Kern County Fire Department to receive full cost recovery for providing these municipal fire services while allowing flexibility to work with cities in circumstances where the underlying methodology does not fit a specific situation,” Alsop wrote.

Still, supervisors must approve the plan before the county can move forward, something they have proven hesitant to do in the past.

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