Fifteen years ago Monterey Park residents voted against transferring city-run fire services over to the county. Next week they will weigh in once again on the issue during a special election that has both sides of the issue claiming misinformation and scare tactics are being used to sway voters.
If approved, Measure FF would amend the city’s municipal code to allow and direct the city council to negotiate a contract with the County of Los Angeles to take over operation of Monterey Park’s fire department.
In 1998 voters defeated two measures — one allowing a transfer to the county and a second instituting a parcel tax to pay for the move. A new tax is not part of the equation this time around however, and voters are being told that contracting fire and ambulance services out to the county will save the city millions of dollars.
It’s a heated issue in the city that has long prided itself on being one of the few remaining small cities with its own fire department. Opponents to the measure on the July 2nd ballot claim its little more than a manipulative move by the city’s firefighters to increase their personal finances at the expense of city residents.
Backers of the measure, which does include strong support and lobbying by the city’s fire fighters, claim that a 2011 feasibility study and an independent analysis, along with a preliminary proposal from the county, show Monterey Park could save nearly $30 million over 10 years, and that does not include additional savings to the city’s pension fund when fire fighters are transferred to the county’s payroll.
Fire Captain Matt Hallock argues that response times would improve and the overall number of firefighters responding would increase with additional support from the two nearest county-run fire stations.
Opponents fear they will lose control over their fire and paramedic services if they are turned over to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Many of the city’s elderly, who have long been very vocal on the issue, are particularly worried that it will take ambulances longer to get to them in an emergency, said resident Linda Wilson.
And while the county’s proposal looks like it could save the county money right now, opponents say there is no guarantee that rates won’t skyrocket down the road, financially devastating the city.
EGP talked to representatives of the Monterey Park Firefighters Association, who are for the measure and members of the Concerned Citizens of Monterey Park who oppose the change. EGP also talked to City Manager Paul Talbot about the measure’s financial impact to the city, response times, staffing and what the measure would mean for the city’s ambulance service.
Financial Impact and Potential Savings
The cost to fund the city’s fire department for the 2012-2013 Fiscal Year (FY) was $10,583,185. A May 2012 county fire department proposal to Monterey Park put the estimated fee for providing fire and ambulance services to the city for the 2012-2013 FY at $8,191,512, a savings of over $2.6 million per year hailed by proponents of Measure FF. They estimate that even with a 5.5% cost inflation increase, the city would still save over $2.9 million per year for the next 10 years.
Resident Bob Gin told EGP that the projected savings outlined in a presentation by the fire chief to the city council do not take into consideration that costs could increase considerably because they are based on the health of county and other contracting cities’ budget, and not Monterey Park’s. Monterey Park resident Nancy Arcuri said fire personnel have a vested interest in making the change, which would increase their pay and benefits to county levels, and provide more promotion opportunities.
Talbot told EGP that Monterey Park has come out of its past financial woes, and currently has a balanced budget.
He said the potential $30 million in savings over 10 years does not tell the entire story, and told EGP that the high cost of converting from a city-run fire department to one run by the county makes it unlikely that the city will see any real saving for at least five years. No one knows for certain whether the proposed numbers will accurately depict the economic times ahead, he said.
Fire Chief Jim Birrell‘s city council presentation put the one-time conversion cost, which includes uniforms, facility and equipment conversion, change in dispatch and the cost of transferring accrued sick and vacation leave at nearly $1.3 million, after a $254,800 vehicle credit from the county.
Ongoing cost would also include $937,569 in estimated worker’s compensation open claims, an amount that could increase or decrease when as cases are settled.
The city’s ambulance service currently costs $1,755,129 to operate, however fees for the service cover about $1,057,000 of that amount. Proponents point out that the $700,000 operating deficit would go away if FF is approved, but opponents counter that the county will achieve those saving by contracting with a private company, not by county fire personnel providing ambulance service.
Removing fire services personnel from the city’s public safety pension fund will force the city to join a more expensive state pension pool, increasing pension costs for police personnel by $276,695.
Proponents said that number is misleading and does not take into consideration a $1.3 million saving to future retirement costs when fire services personnel transfer to county, and the city will no longer have to transfer $357,111 from its General Fund to make up for a funding shortfall.
Talbot clarified that residents have already approved a special property tax that brings in about $5 million a year to pay for the city’s pension fund, but added that those funds, including a $3 million surplus, must stay in the pension trust and cannot be used to pay for other city expenses or the transfer of the fire department to the county.
Impact on Department and Response Time
More firefighters? Fewer firefighters? It seems the answer to that question depends on how you want to look at the question.
The city’s three fire stations are currently staffed by 17 firefighters, including four rescue/ambulance trained paramedics, during a single shift. The county’s proposal would drop that number down to 12. Fire Captain Rob DeRosa said that isn’t an issue because additional support would be available from two fire stations outside the city, one in San Gabriel, the other in East Los Angeles, which means as many as 12 more firefighters would be available to the city in the event of an emergency, something already available under mutual aid agreements between municipalities.
Talbot pointed out that while city fire stations will be leased to the county, they will remain city owned and Monterey Park will still have to pay for all “major” maintenance costs. Talbot told EGP that no city has ever gone back to running its fire department at the end of its 10-year contract with the county because its just “too expensive.”
Resident Shih Lan Chao told EGP that response times should stay the same or improve because the county has agreed to keep all three fire stations in the city open, and the proximity of county fire stations located right outside of Monterey Park. Currently the city’s average response time is 5:17 minutes, while the county’s is 4:52 minutes.
Resident Jeff Schwartz told EGP past experience with the county tells him not to trust those numbers.
“Both sides can make their arguments,” said Talbot, adding that county averages do not include actual numbers from the city or take into consideration the reduction of fire personnel at the stations.
“The city may have a faster time but the County could have more people on the scene,” Talbot said.
Paramedics and Ambulances
The city currently has two rescue ambulances staffed by firefighters who for the most part respond to medical calls and can also transport patients to a hospital, Talbot said.
While the county’s proposal provides for two paramedic squads in utility style pickup trucks, they are not equipped to transport patients so the city would be required to contract with a private company for ambulances staffed with Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) to transport patients when needed.
Resident Rosemary Riedy told EGP that changing over to private ambulances has to increase response times, and having EMTs instead of paramedics respond to incidents does not provide the same level of service.
Captain DeRosa said contracting with an ambulance service has the added benefit of allowing a patient who only needs basic life support decide which hospital the patient will be taken to, rather than requiring them to go to one of the two hospitals in the city. Private ambulances also free up firefighters to respond to other calls, they say.
What’s the rush? question opponents who say the special election is already costing the city money and the measure hasn’t even passed. The price tag for the special election is about $100,000, according to Talbot.
Firefighters told EGP they thought they had collected the needed signatures in enough time to get it on the regular ballot, but according to Talbot they were not within the required timeframe causing the need for a special election. They point out that the $60,000 for the ECSI financial study, and the $24,000 County conversion study were paid for with union dues and not city revenue.
Monterey Park Mayor Teresa Real Sebastian told EGP that she is remaining neutral on the issue, but cautioned voters to do their homework and not just vote one way or the other because someone tells them to.
“It’s up to the residents to look at the facts and make their own decision,” Real Sebastian told EGP. “This isn’t a choice of the council, it’s a choice of the people.”
To review city documents regarding the measure visit the city’s website at http://www.ci.monterey-park.ca.us.