The 29 Palms Fire Department, under the leadership of Chief Thompson, has kept its promises to the residents of 29 Palms and the Desert Heights community. Not only do they serve the citizens with courage, compassion, and integrity as stated in their oath, they also have kept another promise. In 2005, in exchange for your gracious vote to approve Measure J, the Fire Department promised not to come back before the people to ask for money for 8 years. Measure J was (is) a flat rate on single/multi-residences, improved, and unimproved property. For example, it changed the rate on a single residence on 5 acres or less from the 1997 rate of $54 to $80. Measure J went into effect fall of 2005 and for the past 6 years, the Fire Department has staffed two fire stations 24 hours a day, serving approximately 20,000 people and covering 87 square miles. The measure did not contain an inflation adjuster, so your rates have not changed even though the cost of operating the fire department and the cost of living continues to rise as the economy declines.
The fire department is governed by the 29 Palms Water District Board of Directors because the water district was the only local government in existence when the fire department was formed. While the 29 Palms Water District is doing a magnificent job of overseeing the fire department, this situation limits the fire department’s ability to obtain sufficient funds to meet staffing and equipment needs. By law, the water district’s revenue cannot fund fire department operations. The fire department is funded by the 29 Palms Special Fire Tax (still at 2005 rates) and grants that are sometimes available from federal and state programs.
Few attempts have been made to change jurisdiction from the water district to the city of 29 Palms since its incorporation in 1987. There are a couple of problems that interfere with the changeover. Because the water district’s area of service is larger than the city limits, if the city did accept the governance of the fire department, this would cause inadequate services to citizens in the unincorporated areas. This challenge could be corrected by the city annexing more of the unincorporated areas. However, a large annexation would have to go through voter approval and this may not be feasible or desirable.
It could be beneficial for the fire department to be under the jurisdiction of the city. The city has continued to run in the black, even with a high unemployment rate. Prop 13 limits the amount that governments can levy on property owners to 1% of the assessed value, but does allow for a 2% inflation adjustment. The city of 29 also enjoys the additional revenue from its 5,000 acre Redevelopment Agency and can issue bonds and assess development impact fees. Neither the water district nor the fire department has this authority.
Of the 1% property tax revenue, 29 Palms city government receives .26% and shares the remaining .74% with Morongo Unified School District, Ed Revenue Augmentation Fund, General County, CMC, Hi Desert Hospital Dist., 29 Palms Cemetery Dist., County Free Library, Flood Control Zone 6, County Superintendent, Flood Control Admin, Mojave Desert Resource Cons. Dist. In comparison, Yucca Valley receives .16% and the Yucca Valley Fire receives .21%, likewise, Apple Valley receives .094% and the AV Fire Department receives .09%
Since 2005, 29 Palms and the unincorporated areas have continued to grow. The city benefits from this growth via TOT revenue and increased revenue in sales tax. Furthermore, 29 Palms has added new hotels that have increased the need for additional services and equipment. For example, prior to March 2011, the fire department did not have a truck capable of reaching the roofs of local hotels. The purchase of this truck cost the fire department $250,000, further straining an already strained budget.
As a step in the right direction, the City Council and the Water District initiated a Fire Impact Fee Study. The study assessed current services offered by the fire department. It presently serves 20,000 residents located in the city and nearby unincorporated areas. In addition to residences, the department also serves 2,300 workers in local serving, retail, and service businesses.
The study projects that in keeping with the current rate of annual requests for residential permits (approx. 1.25%) the city can expect to add an additional 12,000 residents in the next 25 years. These numbers include city and unincorporated areas. With this growth, the need for fire services will also increase, requiring more money than the current 2005 rates produce.
The suggested Impact Fee is a one-time fee on new building of $528 per Unit residential and $374 non-residential commercial. This fee is consistent with fees collected in San Bernardino County. The fire facilities impact fee will be collected prior to the issuance of a Building Permit. At this time, the City Council has approved the fee, but has tabled it for a discussion after the new General Plan development fees have been discussed. As a result, the fire department is in a holding pattern. It is currently believed that most of the fees will go to pay off the ladder truck. The fire department may not benefit from impact fees for years while they are paying the city back for the truck that was a necessary purchase.
Technically the fire department is part of the Twenty-nine Palms Water District. However, it serves the city and adjoining unincorporated areas as a fully functioning fire district. According to the Official Twentynine Palms Fire Department site, the Fire District has two fully staffed stations. The stations are staffed 24 hours with a 3-man engine company consisting of a career (paid) company officer and two volunteer reserve firefighters. The career full-time staff consists of the Fire Chief and six company officers (two Captains and four Engineers). They are assisted by 1 part time Administrative Assistant and 30 volunteer reserve firefighters. These firefighters are trained in fighting structure and wild land fires and as emergency medical technicians. These company officers have additional training in hazardous materials, technical rescue (vehicle extrication, swift water, high-angle, trench and confined space), and terrorism response.
The Volunteer and Explorer programs provide excellent training in fire and safety skills. Volunteers are young men and women that have finished a fire training academy and must have additional on-the-job training to advance in their careers. The volunteers travel over a hundred miles to work in the 29 Palms Fire Department. The Explorer program is offered to high school students. This program encourages students to pursue careers in the fire and emergency services. Students also learn how to be responsible citizens in their communities. The Fire Department provides many essential services to the city and surrounding communities at very little cost to the city.
How has the Fire Department continued to provide such excellent levels of service without asking the tax payers for an increase? They have been very conservative with expenditures and making do. However, sustaining present services with the 2005 rate is becoming an almost impossible feat.
The Fire Department is fully committed to keeping their 8 year promise, but will need to take a second look at the 2012-13 budget. The Board of Directors will be going over the budget to look for any “fat” that can be cut. They want to be sure of their needs before asking tax payers for an increase. It will be their last resort. How many other agencies can we say have been such good stewards of the tax payers’ money?
The 29 Palms Fire Department has always had our backs. Now it is our turn to have their backs.