10:00 PM PST on Monday, November 29, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Special Section: Inland Wildfires

Severing ties with Cal Fire and creating an independent Riverside County fire department would increase costs by $46.6 million a year, a new report concludes.

In addition, setting up a stand-alone agency would require the county to replace three state-owned fire stations at a one-time cost of $11.9 million, the analysis found.

Riverside County has contracted with Cal Fire for fire protection since 1946. The Board of Supervisors ordered the study earlier this year amid concerns over the administrative fee the state agency charges.

Cal Fire proposed increasing the fee at a time when the county faced budget cuts.

“The study clearly shows we have a good deal with Cal Fire,” board Chairman Marion Ashley said Monday.

“Cal Fire is functioning extremely well.”

It’s the second time in five years the county has analyzed the costs of establishing a separate fire department. A 2005 report concluded that remaining with Cal Fire was the county’s best option.

The county, through its contract with Cal Fire, provides fire protection for the unincorporated areas, 19 cities and one community services district. Under the current arrangement, it costs $178 million to do so.

With a stand-alone agency, the costs would jump by $46.6 million, the result of staffing increases, county overhead and a $22.7 million boost in pension liabilities, according to the report.

Of the $46.6 million, the 20 contracting agencies would be responsible for $21.4 million; the county would pay for $25.2 million out of its general fund. The report assumed cities would continue contracting with the county.

Ashley said the “sticker shock” alone should be enough to keep the county from pursuing its own department.

“This is not a time to spend $25 million more in general fund money to operate a fire department,” he said.

Still, Ashley said studying the issue was worthwhile, given the potential rise in Cal Fire’s fees.

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