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Kern County proposes that nine cities pay more for county fire services

Kern County Fire Department (FILE)
Posted at 4:51 PM, Jul 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-09 20:49:35-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Kern County is asking nine incorporated cities to pay more money for county fire department services. However, local leaders in the City of Wasco said a 195% increase in cost over a seven-year period is unaffordable.

23ABC spoke to the fire union, the county and the Mayor of the City of Wasco to further outline the new proposal.

“We commissioned a study of fire service operations a few years ago by the Center for Public Safety Management, they found that the fire department was not being compensated for 100% of their full cost of services in nine incorporated cities that contract with them,” Kern County Chief Administrative Officer, Ryan Alsop said a new study shows the county fire department is losing $10 million a year due to faulty contracts. “Our Chief…because of this problem almost specifically…has no ability to go out and make investments in equipment and capital outweighs and other things that he needs in order to be effective.”

23ABC Interview with Kern County Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop

According to Alsop, it’s no fault to the Chief or the nine incorporated cities that have been paying what he calls, low annual fees for fire safety services but it’s a contract issue that needs to be resolved so that our county fire department doesn’t lose money each year. He added that it starts with each city budgeting correctly, “They need to budget for them if they don’t want to contract with the county they can contemplate creating their own fire departments.”

The county is now proposing an increase in cost for fire services in nine different cities over a seven-year period. Included are the cities of Ridgecrest, Delano, Wasco, Taft, Tehachapi, Maricopa, McFarland, Arvin, and Shafter. Alsop said this is to help recoup the cost of the faulty contracts from the past and to help the department get back up to speed financially.

However, the Mayor of the City of Wasco, Tilo Cortez Jr, said a 195% increase or roughly an extra $1 million in cost to their city is unaffordable, “I don’t know of very many municipal budgets or city budgets that can absorb that type of hit over seven years without devastating their general fund.” Mayor Cortez said they were not given the analysis to review before the county proposed their new seven-year plan or even a chance to discuss with county leaders. Cortez is now asking for a chance to negotiate further so they don’t have to pull from their general fund and other city services.

Meanwhile, the Fire Association is arguing that this is simply a cost hole that needs to be filled, “Just the cost for operation alone is not being recovered in the contract cities, we don’t even recover the cost to staff the station,” said Fire Association Representative Dave Nelson.

23ABC News reached out to the Kern County Fire Department and Chief David Witt explained that it wasn't a funding issue, but one of revenue. And that has resulted in the department having to use outdated equipment.

"My equipment is horrible. I mean absolutely horrible. Twenty-year-old front line engines. That's not normal. We haven't built a station in five years," explained Witt.

23ABC Interview with Kern County Fire Department Chief David Witt

However, the county said they will now be meeting with all nine cities to discuss how they will each meet the expectations of the proposal and that these discussions will likely take place over the course of the next year before anything is final.