Frustrated by increased costs, the city of Tehachapi plans to study alternatives to using the Kern County Fire Department in the future, including the potential of establishing a municipal fire department.
At its meeting Monday, Nov. 15, the City Council voted 4-0 (with Mayor Pro Tem Michael Davies absent) to approve a new Fire Services Contract with the county with a substantially higher cost than the current contract.
But the council also voted to establish a committee made up of Mayor Phil Smith and Davies to explore other options.
Corey Costelloe, assistant to the city manager, presented the proposed contract to the council, along with background.
In July 2020, he said, the city learned that the county had commissioned a study of fire rates for contract cities, including Tehachapi. He said the study produced by the economic development firm Natelson Dale Group used call volume to determine a cost of service to serve cities.
“The study was completed without any knowledge or input from contract cities, including the city of Tehachapi,” Costelloe wrote in a staff report, noting that the results were ultimately accepted by the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Tehachapi — along with the cities of Arvin, Delano, Maricopa, McFarland, Ridgecrest, Shafter, Taft and Wasco — contracts with KCFD for fire services including fire protection duties and enforcement of State Fire Marshal regulations.
In early October, Delano, Shafter and Wasco agreed to new contracts. The county’s Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop told The Bakersfield Californian that his office expected to bring a few more new contracts to the board in the coming months and is continuing to negotiate with the other cities.
The county wants to recoup what it says is the full cost of services. According to the Natelson Dale Group analysis, KCFD lost around $10 million each year because of the rates charged the cities, resulting in understaffing and aging equipment and facilities.
But Tehachapi challenged the findings of the county’s consultant, engaging the firm City Gate to study KCFD costs, investigate other potential options and ways to reduce the proposed contract costs, Costelloe said in his staff report.
He said the City Gate study, which focused on Station 12 (located within the city of Tehachapi at 800 S. Curry St.) showed many glaring cost overruns that the county is trying to place on the cities. The findings, including the station’s benefit to the region, types of calls for service, two-year history of fires in the city and response time — as well as how mutual aid and the amount of time each call outside city limits impacts city fire protection were presented to the county in subsequent meetings, Costelloe said.
The engagement with the county was somewhat successful, he told the council.
“In response to both our study, and the city’s frustration with the county’s clandestine study without our knowledge, the county agreed to phase-in the newly proposed costs over a six-year period during the next contract, which is proposed to start on July 1, 2022,” he wrote in the staff report.
“At the urging of all contract cities, the county of Kern also removed their initially proposed ‘true-up’ clause that would have allowed the county to send a subsequent bill each year to contract cities for cost overruns from the previous contract year. That proposal would have given the city of Tehachapi even less control over our fire protection costs,” Costelloe wrote.
Still, the contract approved by the City Council on Nov. 15 is much more expensive than costs in prior years.
Tehachapi’s funding for KCFD includes both an amount paid from the city’s General Fund and the so-called Fire Fund that is a restricted-use fund for Structural Fire Protection funded largely by property taxes (and partly by charges for services).
In the current fiscal year, the amount to be paid to the county for KCFD from the city’s General Fund under the existing contract is $18,669. That amount will increase to $196,048 in 2022/23, $385,577 the next year and then continue scale up each year to more than $1.2 million in 2027/28.
And although the city has agreed to the six-year proposed contract, Costelloe noted that it provides for potential termination of the agreement by either party with 12-months written notice.
“The city was informed on multiple occasions, that the county is holding firm on the proposed costs and if we disagree, the city of Tehachapi should start their own fire department,” he wrote in the staff report.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: email@example.com.