PALOS VERDES ESTATES — The City Council last week unanimously approved a plan that would turn firefighting and paramedic duties over to the county.
City Manager Gordon Siebert was directed Wednesday by the council to begin contract negotiations with the county and to report back to the council at its Dec. 10 meeting.
"I think we have in front of us a proposal that has a lot of merit," Mayor James Kinney told members of the audience, which included at least a dozen uniformed Palos Verdes Estates firefighters. "I think on the level of service and cost we have a proposition in the best interest of the city."
The council, Palos Verdes Estates firefighters and members of the community spoke favorably of the proposal at Wednesday's public hearing. Contracting with the county would not only save the city more than $200,000 a year of the $1.3 million it spends on fire and paramedic services, but would improve the level of service in the city, Kinney said.
The only potential stumbling block is that the city uses a parcel tax, which must be approved by the voters every four years, to fund part of the paramedic and fire service budget. The county, however, will require the city to enter into a minimum five-year contract.
Councilwoman Barbara Culver said the council has received "nothing but support" from the public regarding the county contract and does not foresee any difficulty in passing measures to pay for the services.
According to the proposal, five county fire stations within a five-mile radius of the city can provide more firefighters than the city can from its single station at 340 Palos Verdes Drive West.
Last year Palos Verdes Estates spent $1,285,475 on fire protection. Had it contracted with the county, the city would have paid $1,056,015, according to the county study.
170% Personnel Turnover
The Palos Verdes Estates Fire Department has protected this small, bedroom community of seaside homes for 30 years. But in the past 10 years the city has seen a 170% turnover in personnel because Fire Department wages are not competitive with those of other fire departments and opportunities for advancement within the department are limited, Kinney said.
Kinney said it costs the city almost $19,000 to train a firefighter, and the city trains about three new ones annually. Echoing Kinney was Public Safety Director John Dollarhide, who said the level of personnel turnover at the fire station was of grave concern to him. He said he wanted to see city taxes provide for "stable, effective services--not for training other people."
Under the terms of the proposal drafted in June, the city's fire station would be staffed by 15 county firefighters, and the city would lease its station to the county for $1 a year. All firefighters and firefighting equipment would be absorbed by the county, with the provision that if the city later decided to back out of the contract, the equipment would be replaced.
City firefighters favor contracting with the county, Alex Rodriguez, vice president of the Palos Verdes Estates Firefighters Assn., told the council. He said a county contract would boost morale at the station where firefighters are troubled by "the constant turnover, low wages and benefits" and lack of opportunity for career growth.
Cost to Be Determined
William Zeason, deputy chief in charge of the county Fire Department's administrative bureau, told the council that the cost to Palos Verdes Estates would be determined when labor negotiations are completed at the end of the month.
Kinney expressed no dissatisfaction with city firefighters' service, but said problems had arisen when there were multiple calls for paramedic service. In the past two years there have been multiple rescue service calls 27 times, according to Siebert.
"Our goal continues to be the same," Kinney said. "We want to obtain a high level of service and we want to get that at the most efficient cost."
In 1980, voters instituted the tax of $75 per parcel to supplement funding for the city's small Police Department and the paramedic services provided by the Fire Department. That was increased to $178 per parcel in 1984, yielding almost $1 million a year, according to City Treasurer Hazel Elder. About 55% of the tax pays for paramedic service. If the city were to contract with the county, money raised by the tax would help buy county service, but voters must again approve paying such fees in 1988.