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County Fire Study Says City Gets Fair Deal : Thousand Oaks: The report suggests that residents are not subsidizing poorer cities. Critics suspect officials exaggerated the time firefighters spend locally.


The county fire district spends nearly every dollar it receives from Thousand Oaks taxpayers battling blazes and responding to medical emergencies within the city limits, according to a county report released Thursday.

Seeking to reassure residents that they do not subsidize poorer cities, Ventura County Fire Chief George Lund said his district receives $11 million from Thousand Oaks each year--and spends at least $10.2 million in the city.

Thousand Oaks residents also receive benefits that cannot be quantified, such as swift backup during emergencies from firefighters stationed outside the city, Lund said.

All told, he said, the city's demands balanced out the taxpayers' contributions. "The report convinces me" that Thousand Oaks is getting a fair deal, Lund said.

But, as he watched Councilman Frank Schillo crunching numbers and scribbling notes in the back of the room, Lund added wryly: "I'm not the one that has to be convinced."

Indeed, after a cursory look at the county's report, Schillo said he was still skeptical. As a longtime advocate of an independent city fire department, Schillo has said he believes Thousand Oaks could save millions of dollars each year by withdrawing from the regional district.

On Thursday, he called the county's new figures skewed. Although he offered no proof, Schillo suggested that district officials exaggerated the amount of time firefighters spend in Thousand Oaks. "That number still seems high," he said.

Lund, however, stood by his statistics. "These are hard cost estimates and we feel good about them--they are well-documented and justified," he said.

After defending their calculations, fire officials took the offensive, questioning Schillo's own numbers. The veteran councilman had penciled in the cost of an independent fire department at about $7.5 million, based on the budgets of city-run departments in Ventura and Oxnard.

But that figure omits substantial administrative costs, which are divided between the city manager, city attorney or personnel departments, said Abbe Cohen, the fire district's fiscal manager. Furthermore, she said, the city would have to shoulder enormous liability and workers' compensation costs if it sets up an independent fire department.

And if Thousand Oaks chose to retain the same level of service, which even Schillo called excellent, the city probably would have to pay the same hefty overtime tabs as the county in order to staff engine companies around the clock, fire officials said.

Summing up his position, Lund said simply, "We're strong believers in the regional concept."

Yet after the chief's remarks, Schillo sharply criticized county fire officials for harping on the benefits of a regional district.

"The idea that your house will burn down because there won't be enough firetrucks (if the city goes ahead) without the county just is not correct," Schillo said.

He said more than 60% of the fire district's emergency calls are for medical problems or unspecified hazardous conditions--and not for property-threatening blazes, according to the county's own statistics.

Bob Braitman, Thousand Oaks' fire service consultant, said he had not studied the report and could not comment on its conclusions.

But a member of a citizens task force charged with studying the fire services in Thousand Oaks argued that the city should use the report's conclusions as a bargaining tool.

Thousand Oaks may gobble up one-quarter of the district firefighters' time, but it also contributes nearly 30% of the budget, said Dan Preston, a county firefighter and task force member. As the district's financial backbone, the city should have some clout in demanding extra services, he said.

The mere threat of withdrawing from the fire protection district, which covers six cities plus unincorporated county areas, might be enough to wring concessions from fire officials, Preston said. The city could press for extra firefighters on each engine, or for paramedic service, he suggested.

The task force and the consultant will analyze the report and make recommendations to the City Council in October, Schillo said.

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