Wednesday, June 14, 2017

[Butte County] Grand Jury criticizes Butte supervisors over fire services

Oroville >> Members of the 2016-17 Butte County Grand Jury have criticized the county Board of Supervisors for not yet finding a long-term solution to fund the Butte County Fire Department.
In an interim report filed May 25 in Butte County Superior Court, the 19-member panel concluded that the board has had enough time and information to address rising costs of “basic fire protection.”
“After chronologically reviewing the process, the Grand Jury concludes the Board of Supervisors has failed to adopt an adequate fire restructuring plan in a timely manner,” according to the report. “Residents of Butte County will be faced with financial hardships and inadequate basic services if the Board of Supervisors fails to promptly execute their civic responsibility.”
The criticism comes as the board is grappling with rising costs associated with its agreement with Cal Fire, which provides fire services for the county.
County officials have said the county cannot afford to maintain its current level of fire services without making cuts to other public safety agencies, partly blaming state-negotiated firefighter raises for the budget deficit.
The Board of Supervisors in May voted to close Cal Fire-Butte County Station 42 off Cohasset Road in Chico, a move that is said will save the county about $700,000. Most of the station’s calls — about 80 percent — were found to have originated in the city of Chico.
The board had also explored closing three rural fire stations during the winter months but ultimately decided against that plan after residents pleaded with the board to keep them open. County staff was directed to find cuts elsewhere to balance the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Looking forward, the county is exploring the possibility of forming a county-wide special fire district where taxpayers could decide the level of fire service they desire.
In an email earlier this week, Bill Connelly, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said the Grand Jury’s report, which has chronicled the county’s efforts to address fire costs since 2015, gets some things right but has “one big hole.”
“They never interviewed one supervisor who is responsible for keeping the county budget balanced,” Connelly said, adding that it’s easy to judge the board from an armchair “without understanding the full nature of the future budgets.”
Connelly, who’s been a proponent of a special fire district, said he believes an independent board of directors overseeing Cal Fire-Butte County could work closely with those affected by rising fire costs.
“They could cut service, keep it the same or increase services,” he said, adding the board would be required to ask voters to support fee increases per parcel or cut services.
“There is nothing for free,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors previously indicated it could further discuss the formation of a fire district in July.
June 9, 2017
Chico Enterprise-Record
By Andre Byik

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