Starting an Independent Fire Department

If your city contracts out to a state or county fire agency for services, you may want to consider the example of Calimesa, California. Facing rising costs to comply with minimum staffing rules, as well as ballooning costs for defined benefit pensions, in January 2018 the city formed their own independent fire department.

The process began nearly a year in advance. As reported in April 2017 by the Yucaipa/Calimesa News Mirror, in an article entitled Calimesa council approves services for in-house fire department, “The city recently extended its current contract with Cal Fire and Riverside County through the end of 2017. The contract was set to expire at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2017, unless Calimesa met the county requirement of staffing a third fireman at Station 21. Calimesa currently has two firemen. Calimesa council and staff has said it cannot afford a third firefighter at a cost of about $500,000 per year, which is why it is exploring a city fire department. City Manager Bonnie John­son, who presented Monday night to council, also said an agreement with Copper Mountain College that would address training for new hires was in negotiations. The Public Agency Retire­ment Services (PARS) program approved Monday is a Defined Contribution Plan in which a certain amount or percentage of money is set aside each year by the employer for the employee.”

The measures adopted by the Calimesa City Council to prepare to form their own fire department can be found in the Calimesa City Council Minutes – April 3, 2017. In particular:

NEW FIRE DEPARTMENT – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

“After Council discussion, the following action was taken – relating to pre-employment examination services:

“MOTION BY MAYOR PRO TEM DAVIS, SECONDED BY COUNCIL MEMBER HYATT, CARRIED 5-0 TO APPROVE THE FIRE SERVICES PRE-EMPLOYMENT EXAMINATION SERVICES AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE COPPER MOUNTAIN COMMUNITY COLLEGE DISTRICT AND THE CITY OF CALIMESA,”

and, relating to adopting a defined contribution retirement plan:

“MOTION BY MAYOR PRO TEM DAVIS, SECONDED BY COUNCIL MEMBER HYATT, CARRIED 5-0 TO ADOPT RESOLUTION NO. 2017-06, A RESOLUTION OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF CALIMESA, CALIFORNIA, AUTHORIZING EXECUTION OF AN AGREEMENT FOR ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICES WITH THE PUBLIC AGENCY RETIREMENT SERVICES (PARS) TO PROVIDE A DEFINED CONTRIBUTION RETIREMENT PLAN FOR ITS FIRE SAFETY EMPLOYEES.”

Later in 2017, Calimesa’s City Council took the final steps necessary to form their own fire department, as recorded in the Calimesa City Council Minutes – September 5, 2017:

“MOTION BY COUNCIL MEMBER HYATT, SECONDED BY COUNCIL MEMBER MOLINA, CARRIED 4-0 (MAYOR PRO TEM DAVIS WAS ABSENT) TO APPROVE FIRST READING, BY TITLE ONLY OF ORDINANCE NO. 354, AN ORDINANCE OF THE CITY OF CALIMESA, CALIFORNIA, ADDING CHAPTER 2.90 TO TITLE 2, ADMINISTRATION AND PERSONNEL OF THE CALIMESA MUNICIPAL CODE TO ESTABLISH THE CALIMESA FIRE DEPARTMENT, CREATE DEPARTMENT STAFF, SET FORTH POWERS AND DUTIES NECESSARY FOR THE OPERATION OF THE FIRE DEPARTMENT, AND MAKING A DETERMINATION OF EXEMPTION FROM CEQA,”

and, two weeks later, purchasing another fire engine for the new department, as recorded in the Calimesa City Council Minutes – September 18, 2017:

“MOTION BY MAYOR PRO TEM DAVIS, SECONDED BY COUNCIL MEMBER MOLINA, CARRIED 4-0 TO ADOPT RESOLUTION NO. 2017-35, A RESOLUTION OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF CALIMESA, CALIFORNIA, APPROVING A FINANCING LEASE FOR THE ACQUISITION OF A FIRE ENGINE, TAKING RELATED ACTIONS AND AMENDING THE 2017-18 BUDGET.”

In December 2017, Calimesa Mayor Jeff Hewitt was quoted in the local Press Enterprise about the shift to an independent fire department:

“Everybody said ‘that’s impossible, it’s too expensive, you can’t do it,’” said Mayor Jeff Hewitt, who credits the city leadership in building the department. “What we’re doing is setting up a sustainable and stable department going into the future. We’re going to set up the best possible services and living within our means.”

In the long run, along with more control over work rules, the ability to have more flexibility with pension benefit formulas may be what brings the most significant savings the taxpayers of Calimesa. As Steven Greenhut opined in the Orange County Register in early 2018, “Calimesa’s firefighter changes should be model for state.”

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