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City council supports merging fire districts in Eastern Plumas

By Lauren Westmoreland

Could six Eastern Plumas fire districts come together and form one new district? The Portola City Council supports that prospect with the hope that it would improve fire protection throughout the area.

Portola City Council member Tom Cooley and Mayor Pro Tem Pat Morton reported on the work they had been doing on the Local Emergency Services Study Group, or LESSG, during the council’s April 14 meeting.

“We started this process about a year and a half ago,” Morton said by way of background. “It involved six of the local fire districts in Eastern Plumas County, and after discussion, it was determined that we do something because volunteers are getting harder and harder to find. We looked at problems to solve and have worked with attorneys and LAFCo in this process.”

“We’re coming to you tonight as your ad-hoc fire committee and your representatives to the fire study group to request adoption of Resolution 2461, which asks for each agency to give assurance from their governing boards that they continue to support the concept of forming a new district, and in doing that, all of the existing districts would be collapsed into a new district,” Cooley said.

The organizational concept of the new district would be a hybrid structure, meaning professional management and top staff in paid positions, with a fully volunteer firefighter and emergency response structural component.

Cooley explained that the reasoning behind the decision is the demonstration in today’s world that “it’s not reasonable to believe that an all-volunteer department will be able to keep up with the changes taking place and be able to successfully attract volunteers.”

“Professionalism at the top attracts the right type of volunteer that is willing to stay with the service for a longer period,” Cooley added. “There would be an entirely new, independent board for this new district. The number of board members can be increased to ensure that all fire departments are equally and fairly represented.”

In the pursuit of drafting the proposal that would lead toward this change, it is anticipated that an experienced, independent consultant will be hired to assess the specific situation to ensure that all the goals set are achievable, and that it would only improve all services for the community.

According to Cooley, the total shared cost is not yet known; however, the group is requesting that each participating entity determine a maximum dollar figure that the board is willing to commit for the initial project cost.

It is currently expected that the consultant work will come at a cost that will be shared by all participating entities in a way that is mutually agreed to by all parties. Cooley asked the city for an amount not to exceed $20,000 and added that it would be for the first stage of getting toward the reorganization.

Additionally, the Portola City Council was asked to accept a role as the contracting agency with a consultant for the service of performing the feasibility study for the formation of the new fire district.

Cooley thanked Beckwourth Fire Department Chair Daniel Smith for his assistance in authoring the proposal thus far and said that the next step would be to prepare an application for LAFCo review after an agency was consulted.

“There’s no way to know if the single-district option is the right one for our area unless we thoroughly study it,” Cooley said. Smith briefly came on to thank the city and all staff for their assistance through the process and addressed a rumor that the new district would somehow favor the city and stated that neither Portola nor any other departments would be ‘in control’ of anything.

“It’s too bad there are rumors like this going around because it’s probably just the opposite. We have to look at the reason why we looked at this option to begin with, with a board focused only on the fire district and fire operations. A lot of people are not currently in a fire district at all — that means they don’t pay towards that protection,” Smith said.

He continued to explain that this would be a “win-win” for all six agencies involved, and that it couldn’t be done without volunteers moving forward. He spoke about the usual thousands of dollars that LAFCo would charge in fees for this type of project before highlighting that it has been determined that LAFCo would be waiving all fees for this project, should it be deemed feasible.

It was noted that as of that evening, Sierra Valley Fire Department was back onboard with the project but had not been as active in communications as hoped. After some further discussion and without any public comment, council unanimously voted to approve the resolution by roll call vote.

The City Council welcomes all to its meetings which are regularly held the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. Community interest and participation is encouraged and welcome.

The City of Portola City Council meetings are accessible to the public via live streaming at https://zoom.us/j/3583067836 or by phone at 1.669.900.6833; Meeting ID: 358 306 7836.

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