Money Squeeze

By Cassie MacDuff, The Press-Enterprise
and Cassie MacDuff, San Bernardino County Sun
Posted: 06/18/16 – 6:56 PM PDT |

Calimesa is just the latest city to hit the wall with Riverside County’s demands for more spending on public safety contracts.

The county fire agency is pushing Calimesa to add a third firefighter to each engine from the city’s fire station.

The move would cost the city more than half a million dollars annually. The city’s financial reserves would be depleted within two years, according to City Manager Bonnie Johnson.

San Jacinto and Canyon Lake are also grappling with how to pay for the rising costs of their contracts with Riverside County Fire/Cal Fire.

Canyon Lake has closed its sole fire station, serving 11,000 residents in the gated community, because it can’t afford the county’s prices.

And San Jacinto is exploring a joint fire department with the Idyllwild Fire Protection District because of the rising costs. (The plan was put on temporary hold last week because a new agency couldn’t be up and running before the county contract expires; a one-year extension averts a gap in fire protection.)

Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire is not alone in presenting annual agreements the contract cities cannot afford.

Spiraling costs of contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department have 12 of 17 contract cities looking into forming a joint powers authority — basically a parallel sheriff’s department — for law enforcement.

It’s a ludicrous proposal. The startup costs alone for a new agency to cover such a geographically spread-out area — from La Quinta to Temecula, Moreno Valley to Eastvale — will be sky high.

That it’s being considered at all tells you just how desperate the cities are.

All of this turmoil makes me wonder whether the county is deliberately trying to get rid of its contract cities.

Cal Fire/County Fire Chief John Hawkins assured me he has gotten no directive from the Board of Supervisors or the county executive’s office to squeeze out the contract cities. In fact, he considers them vital to the region’s fire protection network.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said it would hurt the county, which is deficit-spending at more than $1 million a week, to lose the contract cities.

Every city that breaks away causes a ripple effect, raising costs across the public-safety system, Jeffries said. “It’s extremely unfortunate to watch this happen.”

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