Like many cities across Los Angeles County looking for ways to cut costs, the city of Vernon is looking into whether they should disband their city-run fire department and contract those services out to Los Angeles County Fire Dept.
During one of the last city council meetings of 2013, Vernon Fire Chief Michael A. Wilson took council members through a feasibility study prepared by LA County Fire that analyzes the costs of making such a change. He told the council he has concluded Vernon would lose fire resources needed for the unique city that is almost exclusively industrial with only 100 or so residents.
“We have a unique and specialized jurisdiction,” Wilson said. “We encounter many incidents with hazardous materials.”
Wilson said Vernon would lose its Class 1 fire department, a rating given by the Insurance Services Office that indicates the highest level of fire protection. He said the change would result in a Class 4 rating for the city, which means insurance costs would go up, hurting the city’s “business friendly” reputation.
“We have a vast knowledge of our customers,” said Wilson, citing the various services his department offers businesses. “It’s a localized approached that uses an efficient use of industrial based knowledge and experience by our personnel.”
Contracting with the county, however, could save the city nearly $2.3 million a year, according to the county’s proposal. The savings would benefit the city’s General Fund, which has at times struggled with large deficits. Currently, the city’s fire department costs $14,173,358 to run; that would drop to $11,877,578 by turning services over to the county.
But Wilson says taking into consideration revenue acquired through business fees, grant reimbursements and fire and filming permits, the city’s net cost is actually $11,455,679, a real savings of only $420,000.
“Based on the data provided, it’s far more beneficial to stay with Vernon Fire,” recommended Finance Director William F. Fox.
Fox emphasized potential concerns, including conversion costs, repairs and any capital costs in excess of $25,000 and a ten-year contract with no early exit clause. Fox told the council the city could potentially lose revenue previously invested by transferring all fire equipment with no monetary reimbursement and renting the fire stations to the county for $1 a year as outlined in the county’s proposal, a preliminary assessment of what the county believes to be the cost of providing fire service to Vernon.
Should the city council decide to pursue negotiations with the county, city staff would be authorized to negotiate a reimbursement agreement to cover the county’s costs for preparing a more detailed assessment, including calculating conversion costs and an evaluation of the city’s facilities, equipment and vehicles.
The county is proposing to use three of the city’s four fire stations, and would reduce the number of fire units stationed in the city from 9 to 5, including a paramedic squad able to transport patients.
But Vernon would also have at its disposal services located in adjacent cities like Maywood, Huntington Park, Bell and Commerce, which also contract with the County.
The move would mean “increased staffing and units” for Vernon, according to county documents.
“Contracting with the Fire District [LA County Fire] could produce significant savings for the City [Vernon], thereby providing a potential long-term solution for reducing City general fund expenditures,” reads the report.
But the reduction of firehouses concerns Vernon’s fire chief who says the four stations are strategically placed below and above the Los Angeles River in case the bridge connecting parts of the city are destroyed during a major earthquake. More importantly, fire resources would not be exclusively for Vernon but shared with all of the contract cities in LA County’s jurisdiction, Wilson said.
The 5.2-mile radius city, made up almost entirely of warehouses, factories and other fire-prone businesses, would also lose its Hazmat and Search and Rescue squads and its Battalion Chief. Fire personnel in the city would be reduced from 22 to 15, according to the county’s proposal.
The reduction in staff and fire units is a concern to Councilman Richard Maisano, who said cuts could impact response time, which he emphasized is important to local businesses.
Less staff means less accountability, said Wilson, who added current staffing levels allows for maximum oversight and accessibility, something the city tries to make sure it addresses as it attempts to recover from years of alleged corruption and near disincorporation.
With mutual aid agreements already in place with nearby cities, Wilson told the council he does not recommend changing fire service. He noted that other nearby cities, like Montebello, Monterey Park and Downey had decided against switching to LA County Fire after feasibility studies were conducted.
Dean Richens, president of Vernon’s Firefighters Association, said the union agrees with the fire chief that it is “important to stay Vernon” run. But he did warn the council that their position does not mean the department is not in need of capital improvements.
“We do have aging fire stations,” said Richens, noting that three of the fire stations are over 50 years old. “We do need to budget money for stations…In my opinion, our budget needs to be bigger.”
Richens said he was not making light of the $14 million current budget but compared other local fire departments and their budgets. He emphasized the department has frozen step raises.
“I know the city has had budget problems but these are things we need to consider,” he said.
Originally requested in June of 2012, the preliminary study was completed in November of last year. The city council chose to take no action on the matter at last month’s council meting, during which Vernon’s Reform Monitor John Van De Kamp urged the city to have the county fire department make its own presentation to the council.
Knowing “there are always two sides to the story… I wouldn’t recommend taking any action. Clearly, the kind of case presented is very persuasive in favor of keeping the fire department here,” Van de Kamp suggested. “We need to make sure [LA County] speaks to it.”
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