Municipal Services Review for Eastern Plumas fire agencies addressed at Portola city hall

By Lauren Westmoreland

[email protected]

 

The Portola City Council received a review of the Eastern Plumas Fire Municipal Service during a recent meeting at city hall, leading up to the LAFCo (Local Agency Formation Commission) public hearing on Oct. 17.

The preface to the review states that the MSR was prepared for LAFCo and is a regional service specific municipal services review—”a State-required comprehensive study of certain municipal services within a designated geographic area.”

Advertisement

The MSR focuses on local agencies in the eastern region of Plumas County that provide fire protection services. Some of the districts reviewed are multi-service districts and provide some services in addition to fire services, including water, wastewater, parks and recreation, and street lighting services.

The presentation was for certain fire districts in Eastern Plumas County, including City of Portola, Beckwourth Fire Protection District (BFPD), Gold Mountain Community Services District (GMCSD), Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District (EPRFPD), and Sierra Valley Fire Protection District (SVFPD).

The report was prepared for Plumas LAFCo by Policy Consulting Associates, LLC. Consultant Jennifer Stephenson, of Research Associate Burr Consulting, has been working with LAFCos on various reviews and studies for over 16 years, working with California communities in 30 counties around the state.

AB 1744 requires LAFCo to make certain determinations, such as present and planned capacity of public facilities and adequacy of public services, including infrastructure needs or deficiencies, as well as items such as growth and population projections for the affected area and accountability for community service needs, including governmental structure and operational efficiencies.

Advertisement

“The process for this review started a couple of years ago, and was heavily supported by area departments,” she said.

The last reports done for each agency were in 2010, and each department volunteered all of the information needed to update the reports, with Stephenson thanking all area agencies for their support and participation. She then went on to explain significant findings from each of the above-mentioned departments, beginning with the City of Portola.

City of Portola 

Ultimately, findings thus far have shown that in the City of Portola, by contract with Beckwourth FPD, fire department services have been plagued with many concerns and challenges. “These challenges are being seen by fire providers across the state,” Stephenson said. “It was found that operational deficiencies were the impetus to ceasing fire department operations and seeking service structure options.”

In addition, it was noted that master and capital planning for fire services has been deficient, and that Beckwourth FPD is providing “outstanding protection” for the city’s area of responsibility.

Advertisement

It was also noted that consistent response time data is necessary for all reviewed agencies.

Beckwourth Fire Protection District 

For Beckwourth, reviews showed that while financing levels are adequate, there is a shortfall in the capital and repair and replacement programs.

It was reported that BFPD continues to pursue and lead efforts for other funding mechanisms, such as grant funding, with an identified need for improved dispatch protocols.

“Portola reports that it is satisfied with the contract services provided,” Stephenson stated, adding that the review also showed a need for accurate tracking of response times for all incidents.

Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District 

Review of Eastern Plumas RFPD showed that funding is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of services. “The finances over the last couple of years have been strongly supported by grant funding, which is not reliable from year to year,” she said.

“The district is also facing governance and accountability challenges, and response to incidents has on occasion been unpredictable and disorganized due to certain staffing constraints,” Stephenson read from the report, noting that was common in volunteer operated fire departments as well. “Residents could receive an enhanced level of services if included in reorganization.”

Advertisement

Gold Mountain CSD

The review states that while Gold Mountain Community Services District has faced financial difficulties, and anticipates underfunded infrastructure needs, it has conducted solid financial planning and initiated a cost-of-service rate study.

It was also noted that the contractor, EPRFPD, did not meet several contractual obligations in 2021.

As far as fire services go, the primary infrastructure constraint is a lack of sufficient fire flow through the district’s pressurized water system. Finally, it was reported that Gold Mountain CSD had notably assessed several governance alternatives for fire services over the last ten years, ultimately choosing to participate in the LESSG, or Local Emergency Services Study Group.

Sierra Valley Fire Protection District

Sierra Valley FPD was found to have the most expansive service area of the reviewed agencies, providing services to a large area in addition to providing services to Hallelujah Junction Fire Protection District in Lassen County.

Sierra Valley FPD was also found to be severely financially constrained relying on property taxes and donations.

Advertisement

There are several unfunded capital improvement and apparatus needs, and staffing levels continue to decline, requiring constant recruitment efforts.

Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) challenges

Many fire districts face similar constraints and challenges to those experienced in Plumas County, but those unique to the county are irregular boundaries and serving outside of boundaries without revenue. Challenges discovered for fire and EMS include a lack of sufficient funding with increased costs, and meeting expanding standards and requirements.

Challenges also include disjointed services with lack of consistency between departments, duplication of services in departments such as administration, divided voices limiting influence, and a lack of regional planning.

It was also found that all departments have a heavy reliance almost entirely on volunteers with declining volunteerism, alongside larger and more frequent wildfires.

Governance structure options

Some higher-level options identified in the report include maintaining the status quo or other contract services, not considered to be a sustainable option into the future, as well as a potential joint powers authority/agreement for some or all services.

Advertisement

Other options include annexation and/or dissolution of some departments by others, full consolidation, or the strong option, the formation of a new regional fire district.

The formation of a new district would handle the unique challenges presented to fire and EMS in Eastern Plumas county, according to Stephenson.

Benefits and challenges to reorganization

The benefits seen by other departments that have reorganized include centralized fire planning and provision, better leveraging of resources, and consistency in policies and practices.

Other benefits seen include cost savings and efficiencies, the elimination of duplications, as well as improved training standards, performance, and incident oversight.

Challenges could include financial differences, ensuring sufficient funding for enhanced services, choosing a successor agency (if consolidation is chosen) and achieving a consensus on staffing structure and organization.

Next steps

According to Stephenson, the feasibility study is being finalized, and the Sphere of Influence (SOI) for each agency will need to be updated at the December meeting of LAFCo, after which a consolidation will require all stakeholder agencies to adopt similar resolutions. This would then be followed by an application and consideration by LAFCo as well as an election for voters to provide feedback on whether they would support or not.

Advertisement

Powers commented that he hoped to see things continue to move in the same direction, with praise for the report.

Stephenson was asked whether EPRFPD has submitted any comments or concerns, despite the fact that they had declined to participate in the process prior to the compilation of the MSR.

“It was requested that we include Eastern Plumas in the regional view regardless, which greatly impacts considerations on the SOI,” she said. “They provided all requested documents, and they are aware the report exists. I have not heard comment, nor have they reached out to me regarding the report.”

Stephenson also clarified that the other four agencies still participating in the plan should not be affected by a lack of participation by EPRFPD. “The four agencies have made every effort to retain EPRFPD boundaries as they are,” she added. “Eastern Plumas could always join later, but that would be more costly for them.”

Advertisement