Nine cities across Kern County could face increased costs for fire services after a vote by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Those nine cities — Arvin, Delano, Maricopa, McFarland, Ridgecrest, Shafter, Taft, Tehachapi and Wasco — do not have fire departments of their own, but contract with the county for fire protection.
On Tuesday, supervisors decided the methodology with which those contracts had been drawn up significantly favors the cities. When most of the contracts come up for renewal in 2022, supervisors unanimously voted to ditch the old methodology for a new one that will see many cities charged hundreds of thousands of dollars more for fire services.
“What the cities are paying are extremely low,” Fire Chief David Witt told supervisors on Tuesday. “We have a revenue issue and we need to fix this and move on.”
The highly-charged issue was a difficult pill for both the board and various city officials to swallow. Cities have resisted the county’s efforts to push through the new strategy, and before Tuesday’s meeting urged supervisors to give them more time to come up with alternatives.
In a letter to supervisors, the County Administrative Office claimed some of the cities would not be able to pay for the higher costs without resorting to a tax increase.
However, the county fire department is facing a revenue shortfall of $10.3 million, and county officials depicted the price the cities are paying for fire services as a subsidy paid for by residents of unincorporated areas of Kern County. In order to pay for the Fire Department, the county says it has needed to take away resources from other areas.
“Really, where we are right now in my view is, either we start cutting service levels significantly — reducing staffing in stations, browning out stations, closing stations — or we continue to take more money away from other county general fund departments and give it to the Fire Department,” Supervisor Zack Scrivner said during the meeting.
Supervisors gave themselves some wiggle room Tuesday to potentially soften the financial blow to cities. Scrivner said the new methodology was not “set in stone” and could be altered to suit specific cities.
Cities pay for fire protection using property tax revenue and a service fee. The county’s plan could see the cities’ fees increase dramatically. The city of Tehachapi, which contributed $474,528 in property tax revenue to the fire fund in fiscal year 2017-18, could see its fee increase from $17,180 to about $1.4 million over seven years.
Still, Tehachapi City Manager Greg Garrett expressed support for the supervisors' vote, and thanked supervisors for recognizing initial missteps in the negotiation process.
“This approved action allows cities and county to work collaboratively to find the best methodology that fits each individual city,” he said in a statement, “so we can mutually benefit from the outstanding service provided by the men and women of the Kern County Fire Department.”
Taft Mayor Dave Noerr was not as conciliatory. Taft contributed $158 in property tax revenue in FY 17-18, and could see its fee increase from $459,216 to around $2.3 million under the county’s new methodology.
“I do not accept the methodology that you are considering today,” he told supervisors before the vote. “I don’t see a real benefit… there’s a great deal of work to be done.”
All of the cities except Maricopa have hired a consultant, Citigate, to see them through the county’s new plan. In its report to supervisors, the CAO’s Office said Citigate appeared to be preparing options for some of the cities to specifically tailor or “not contract” with the Fire Department in the future.
“We are trying to fix something that needs to be fixed,” Supervisor Leticia Perez said, acknowledging how difficult it has been for the county to move forward on the issue. “Nobody likes this.”