Downey ends talks with county fire

DOWNEY - After a lengthy discussion with city staff and Downey fire union representatives, the City Council on Tuesday decided not to proceed its negotiations with the Los Angeles County Fire District for fire and emergency services. Councilmembers unanimously agreed that the city's needs do not fit the county fire regional mold, which would staff less firefighters at Downey stations, relying on county stations in surrounding cities to respond to emergency calls.

"There's a cost to local control. I take pride in having our own guys, but my pride is trumped by the safety of our residents," said Councilmen Roger Brossmer. "The regional approach makes sense and it will become a reality -- but we're not there yet."

The council ordered a county feasibility study last July after the Downey Firemen's Association publicly petitioned the city to disband the Downey Fire Department in order to contract with the county for fire services.

On Tuesday, Fire Chief Lonnie Croom presented the preliminary study, which was approved and forwarded to the city of Downey by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning.

Croom explained the differences between Downey's local approach, which benefits from maximum oversight, dedicated resources, and a customized system, versus the county's regional approach, which highlights shared resources, county-wide programs, and a system that dispatches the closest units regardless of city boundaries.

"In a local approach, we benefit from an efficient use of institutional knowledge -- guys like me who've been here for over 25 years," Croom said. "In the regional approach, you have access to 24 L.A. County fire stations in a five-mile radius -- the closest station responds to the call."

Downey Fire currently utilizes three fire engines, one truck company, and two transport paramedic vans with 18 firefighters on duty everyday, Croom said.

However, as a result of a $1.8 million federal grant, fire engine 61, which was taken out of service due to budget cuts, will be reinstated and three new firemen will join the fire department on June 21 for a total of 21 firefighters.

Croom said county fire, based on projections from the 2012-13 fiscal year, proposed two fire engines, one paramedic fire engine, one quint, a combined engine and truck company, and one non-transport paramedic van with 16 firefighters on duty everyday.

In addition, fire prevention positions like plan checker, prevention supervisor, and fire inspector would not be housed in the city, but most likely Cerritos.

Fiscally, the study revealed that county fire service in Downey, based on the 2012-13 fiscal year, would cost nearly $12.1 million compared to the $13.8 million adjusted budget Croom projected for the Downey Fire Department.

Croom said the difference in savings would be roughly the same next fiscal year if the council agreed to contracted services. He also noted that switching to county fire service would result in possible layoffs and demotions of rank for current firefighters.

As council members wrestled with the idea of having only 16 firefighters in the city at one time, representatives from the Downey fire union lobbied the council to consider the fiscal challenges the city has faced since the economic downturn.

"We've hit rock bottom," said Fire Captain Dan Rasmussen. "As far as cuts from services, there's no deeper to cut. We have an insufficient model and we can't go any lower."

Rasmussen continued: "This is about top notch fire protection for the best price. Yes, there might be a reduction in personnel, but not a reduction in services. In many areas of the city, a L.A. County station is closer."

Captain Jorge Villanueva, a 13-year veteran of the Downey Fire Department, echoed his co-worker's statements, petitioning the city to join the county fire district for a better quality of service for Downey residents.

"For me, this is about response times and saving lives," he said. "It's not about going county, but providing the best service for the people of Downey. L.A. County has 58 contract cities and it's proven to be effective operationally when speed counts."

Villanueva maintained that if the city continues its operations as is, Downey firefighters will eventually be stretched too thin.

"We're watching our call volumes go up and our resources shrink...where are we going to be 10 years from now?," he asked. "By moving forward with the comprehensive study, we hope that with the findings you'll see the savings."

Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez acknowledged the efforts of the fire union to improve public safety, but rejected the concept that county services were superior.

"There is a quality we get in our city. Folks, we have 21 firefighters and we already have county and Area E [assistance]," Vasquez said. "Based on this information, I'm not getting the confidence I need. I can't be supportive based on the economics and level of service."

Likewise, Brossmer struggled to accept the concept that having 16 firefighters on duty was just as reasonable as having 21 on duty.

"I'm not comfortable shedding five firemen out of our city. I don't see how that makes sense," he said. "I don't see the savings at this time and if I don't have an appetite for it, there's not reason to keep stringing anyone along.

"If we didn't have the fire engine company coming back, it'd be a different conversation," Brossmer added.

Before calling for a vote, Mayor Mario Guerra thanked the fire department for its service during tough economic times before reiterating his opposition to county fire and emergency services.

"Last year at budget time we had a huge deficit. We asked all of our departments to make cuts," he said. "It was a calculated risk taking out fire engine 61, but we were able to bring it back.

"L.A. County Fire is one of the best in the country, but I believe Downey Fire is too. As a Downey resident, I like waking up in the morning knowing my family is safe...I'm not convinced the regional approach is there yet."

If further negotiations were approved by the council, a more detailed comprehensive evaluation from the county would have cost the city $30,000.

City councilmembers on Tuesday also reluctantly adopted a resolution accepting the signature certification of a proposed charter amendment petition submitted by the Downey Firemen's Association in March that would amend the city charter, eliminating the two-thirds voter approval required for Downey to contract out police and fire services.

According to the Downey city clerk's office, the fire association submitted a total of 12,024 signatures, far exceeding the nearly 7,500 signatures, or 15% of the registered voters, needed to place the initiative on the ballot.

Now that the signatures have been verified by the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's office, the city council will call for an election next year, allowing Downey voters to decide the fate of the measure.

Fire union officials say their charter amendment petition is in response to Downey violating its charter by hiring outside EMTs and jailers, exposing Downey taxpayers to potential lawsuits.

However, detractors believe the ballot measure is only meant to strip voters of their voice on matters of public safety by allowing the city council to contract with other local agencies for fire and police services without voter approval.

"I feel very strong about this," said Guerra. "This decision belongs to the citizens. If this petition passes, it takes away the rights of the citizens. I'm firmly opposed to this."

The council also ordered several staff reports, which will reveal the fiscal impact of the charter amendment election and its effect on housing, the quality of services, and local business retention and employment.

According to state law, the reports must be brought back to council before June 13.

********** Published: May 16, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 05