Discussions continue on district consolidation

Discussions continue on the fire district consolidation proposal between the boards of the Chester Public Utility District and Chester Fire, Prattville-Almanor Fire, and the West Almanor Community Services District.

The West Almanor Fire Department is the primary unit of the West Almanor Community Services District, a county-chartered special district that serves the community of Lake Almanor West.

Dialogue on district consolidation was initially undertaken at the first official meeting held Aug. 31, where stakeholders reviewed the problem of retaining firefighting volunteers in the Almanor Basin, which has seen declining numbers for several years, particularly in the West Almanor Community Services District.

WACSD initiated contact with CFD/CPUD and the Prattville-Almanor Fire Department, noting staffing concerns and asking whether neighboring districts would be willing to discuss the possibility of consolidation.

For several years it has become increasingly difficult to recruit a desirable number of volunteers, as the entire region has undergone significant demographic changes, with a gradual reduction in the number of potential emergency personnel due to an aging citizenry and other factors.

With fewer volunteers available, given a declining population, the need for younger people to recruit has reached a critical threshold, while the need to respond to medical and fire calls remains relatively constant.

Mike Willhoit, prior WACSD board member, said a recent meeting held in November confirmed the appointments to the working group that included Lake Almanor West Community Services District Fire Chief Randy Fluke, board chair Dale Knutsen and board member Dick Horn representing their respective fire districts, joining with Chester Fire Chief Joe Waterman, CPUD chair Wes Scott, and Chester District Manager Frank Motzkus, as well as Prattville-Almanor Fire Captain Ken Wilson.

Monthly meetings are held to provide an opportunity to analyze the problem of volunteer retention and recruitment, and find a solution that is in everybody’s best interest, Willhoit said.

Discussions on the proposed consolidation of the three fire districts will continue to move forward into 2018, he added, albeit at a measured pace as committee members take time to consider whether or not consolidation is a suitable response to finding fire fighter volunteers, ideally between the ages of 18 to 55.

“I have been researching the background,” regarding a grand jury report, “that covers fire protection in the Almanor Basin,” said Willhoit. “It talks about various options to provide fire services in rural areas like ours.”

In addition, “A Local Agency Formation Commission report on its sphere of influence pointed out some areas that don’t get discussed,” he said, “like the fact that not everyone is in a fire district, yet they still receive fire protection.”

LAFCo provides final approvals for changes in district boundaries, oversees the creation of special districts as well as provides for the orderly development and formation of local agencies.

“There are two ways that consolidation might occur,” Willhoit continued. “One is to go through LAFCo and simply move ahead and consolidate the districts. The other way is to leave everything the same as it is now, and just sign onto a Joint Powers Agreement that essentially accomplishes exactly the same thing,” he claimed.

Willhoit thought that if they went to LAFCo to implement consolidation, “they could change the district boundaries and include those areas not presently within any of the districts” as they are now designated.

A Joint Powers Agreement wouldn’t require that the districts be folded into just one district, he noted.

“My preference is to do a Joint Powers Agreement instead, and see how things work out,” rather than taking the more complicated route of consolidation. “If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then go to LAFCo,” he suggested.

What about the Mutual Aid Agreements that are already in place? Such arrangements provide for added support between adjacent fire districts around the Basin.

“The problem is that there are a diminishing number of volunteers in all districts to help support the agreement,” Willhoit pointed out, especially in West Almanor.

The larger districts like Chester Fire have the ability to generate relatively more volunteers because, in principle, they have more people who are permanent residents. The west shore area lacks a younger demographic to recruit from, he said.

From his point of view, “consolidation has potential and may be the best way to go, but we still need to include additional volunteers” who are not presently on staff.

He went on to say that before there’s any consolidation of districts or forming a joint powers agency, “The various districts need to start by analyzing what’s needed most, based on what kind of calls we’ve had over the last five years, and really dissect them; are they mostly ambulance calls? What time of the day or night do most calls come in, and what would be appropriate response times?”

Willhoit shared that in his experience about 70 to 80 percent of emergencies are medical calls. “Look at all three districts, look at the equipment that’s needed in addition to the number of fire personnel available in each of the fire districts,” as part of the analysis.

There’s a big difference between loading up a person into an ambulance and fighting a forest fire, he noted. “With Mutual Aid they all come together to assist each other, but the big issue remains staffing needs.”

He recommended that once the fire districts have a clear idea of what the need is over all, they could then organize around that.

Another idea that came to mind is that, “We may have to include a per-call type of arrangement with paid positions strictly on an as-needed basis. … Without sufficient volunteers, then your only alternative is to go to paid staffing, even if it is only part time.”

If more money is needed for additional firefighters, it would probably have to come from an increase in property tax assessments, “but I think there should first be a clear understanding of what’s really required in terms of staffing should consolidation go forward,” he reiterated.

Where does the Mutual Aid Agreement fall short?

“More analysis needs to be done,” Willhoit conceded, “especially in terms of response time.”

These questions are what the working group is trying to understand, he concluded, before there’s any kind of recommendation to consolidate fire districts. “It’s still very early in the process.”

Joint Powers Agreements

According to information compiled in “A Citizen’s Guide to Joint Powers Agreements,” California state law has allowed public agencies to work together by signing cooperative arrangements among existing agencies that have agreed to combine their powers and resources to establish a joint approach to shared problems, as well as merge common functions and deliver public services.

As with mutual aid agreements, a joint powers agreement spells out how each member agency is responsible for delivering a service on behalf of the other member agencies, but includes a formal, legal protocol beyond that which a mutual aid agreement entails.

Each joint powers agreement is unique, as there is no set formula for how agencies must use their joint powers.

If a joint powers agreement requires substantial staff time from one member agency, but not the others, the managing agency may hire extra staff to work on the joint powers project.

The alternative way to exercise joint powers is to establish a new organization that is completely separate from the member agencies. This organization is known as a joint agency or joint powers authority.

A joint powers agency or joint powers authority is a new, separate government organization created by the member agencies but is legally independent from them.

Why should a public agency enter into a joint powers agreement?

JPAs exist for many reasons, whether to expand a regional facility, provide support for public safety, set up a centralized emergency dispatch center, or to combine resources and share services to tackle common problems. The idea is that member agencies save time and money.