Burning the budget
Butte County explores cost-saving alternatives to 85-year-old relationship with Cal Fire
Last June, as the Butte County Board of Supervisors worked to set this fiscal year’s budget, one item sparked heated discussion that continues to simmer today. The cost of labor for the county’s fire protection for 2015-16 increased by $1.1 million due to pay raises and increased costs of employee benefits, but the county had no say in labor negotiations.
The county’s absence at the bargaining table is due to the fact that it has a cooperative agreement with Cal Fire, a state agency, for fire services, and has since 1931. The Board of Supervisors directed county staff to explore options to restructure these services and weigh the effects of possible budget cuts. With public input, the board could choose a new fire service model as soon as September.
“The cost of fire and other public safety services by and large comes from the county’s general fund,” said Casey Hatcher, public information officer for Butte County. “The county can’t just sit and watch these costs go up and up and up when we have no control over it, so we have to look at other options.”
“We’ve seen some rather large increases, and because of the nature of our relationship with Cal Fire, we’ve had no other choice than to just fork it over,” Supervisor Larry Wahl said in a phone interview. Wahl also said the county is happy with the services provided by Cal Fire, and that the board’s decision to consider new models is purely a financial one.
Currently, the county funds 105.5 full-time equivalent positions, all of which are overseen by Cal Fire, which also contracts with the cities of Biggs and Gridley and the town of Paradise. The collective unit, then, is known as Cal Fire-Butte County, which addresses fire protection needs in those municipalities and unincorporated areas of the county. Chico and Oroville have their own, separate fire departments.
The county’s first step in determining reorganization was to hire Matrix Consulting Group to identify its options. The consultancy came up with six possible ways to restructure fire services, and in February the board narrowed them down to three: maintain the county’s relationship with Cal Fire with significant budget cuts to county fire services; create a standalone county fire department, meaning the county would be responsible for creating positions, pay and benefits packages and dealing with labor organizations; or create a single countywide fire district overseen by the Board of Supervisors, allowing them to contract with outside organizations—including Cal Fire—for services. The last option would require voter and LAFCO approval.
In an effort to make the public aware of possible changes to fire services and let locals weigh in on the options chosen by the supervisors, the county ran an online survey from April 12 through last Sunday (May 15). Hatcher said the survey garnered nearly 1,000 responses, which her office is currently tabulating.
Furthermore, public meetings will be held in June in each of the county’s five districts, though dates and locations have yet to be set.
“We have a very diverse county, and the fire service needs of people in the valley are much different than those in the foothills,” Hatcher said. “We want to make sure we give everyone the opportunity for input.”
She said that, if all goes according to plan, a final decision could be made by the Board of Supervisors as early as September.
Butte County Fire Chief/Cal Fire Unit Chief Darren Read half-jokingly said he would prefer the supervisors choose “Option four, the one they didn’t pick, which would be to let us provide the current level of service without cutting our budget.”
Read said that, as prompted by the supervisors, his department has been looking at the effects of cutting from $3 million to $5 million from the fire budget. “So far, we’ve put together a draft of what $3 million in cuts would look like, and it would definitely involve cutting some staff and closing some fire stations,” he said, adding he was unable to disclose which stations might face closure.
He also explained that the $1.1 million pay increase this year was due to statewide hikes in the cost of CalPERS benefits and the minimum wage, and that the county would have had to pay the same amount if it had its own independent fire department. He added that Cal Fire employees hadn’t had a raise in many years, and actually took 5 percent pay cuts in the fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13. He said cutting staff will also be difficult, as the department lost seven positions at the height of the recession in 2009, and has yet to recover that personnel.
Read said Cal Fire and the county have an exemplary, long-standing relationship that he hopes to maintain.
“We are Butte County’s fire department, no matter what patch we might wear,” he said. “Our firefighters live and work and raise their families here, and we’re totally committed to safety and service in this community.”