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Fire Chief Wants Civilian Panel to Review His Budget : Finances: An advisory group would make suggestions for changes in county department's fiscal policy.


Charged by critics with wasting precious tax dollars, Ventura County Fire Chief George E. Lund on Tuesday will ask the Board of Supervisors to establish an advisory panel to come up with better ways to spend his $45-million budget.

An audit of the county fire district, which nearly lost more than 40% of its funding in the latest round of budget cuts, has already been completed by Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon at the request of supervisors.

But release of the final draft of the audit is awaiting comment from Lund, who said he hopes to have a formal management response by Friday.

A citizens advisory panel made up of a cross-section of community groups could help implement fiscal policy changes that seem certain to be recommended when the audit is released, Lund said.

Lund said a continuing lack of funding has prevented the department from planning its long-term goals, as was routinely done prior to the recession.

He hailed the proposed panel as an amalgam of people who would be focused on the single goal of how to distribute the district's resources.

"In the past five years, due to fiscal uncertainties, planning has been almost nonexistent," Lund said. "A lot of people have been asking us how we could better spend the money we have.

"The only way to resolve that question is to ask the people we serve," he said.

Included on the panel would be appointees representing each of the five county supervisors, a representative of each city served by the district, and representatives from area municipal advisory committees, the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., the Ventura County Economic Development Assn. and the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

"We hope to have this committee meet for the first time by the latter part of October and formulate some recommendations by December," Lund said. "The one thing we've asked from all of the groups is that they look at diversity among the cross-section of people we serve."

Several groups invited to participate on the advisory panel have already suggested ways to pare the fire protection district budget, or expand services without increasing costs.

"We are in favor of public input to the farthest extent possible," said Michael Saliba, executive director of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn.

However, he said, "the whole thing is going to revolve around whether the Fire Department is asking for concrete input from the public that would be put to use to actually change some of the ways they do business."

Saliba declined to specify what policy changes he recommended to the auditor, saying he would prefer to wait until the audit is officially released.

Others said such a citizens panel could only help.

"It's a good idea for local government to seek the advice of the private sector as to how it can better provide its services," said Marc Charney, president of the Ventura County Economic Development Assn.

"It might do good," he said, "(but) the amount of good it does will depend on how that advice is pursued and whether it's followed."

Critics have accused the district of wasting money by paying too much overtime to its firefighters and keeping battalion chiefs on 24-hour shifts instead of sending them home after eight hours and keeping them on call.

During 1992-93, Ventura County's 326 firefighters received an average of $13,860 each in overtime pay, according to the district.

Earlier this year, Lund proposed a fire assessment parcel tax of $178 on every piece of land in the district to cover projected budget cuts. That proposal was derailed after state lawmakers decided to fully fund fire districts throughout the state.

Lund said he welcomes suggestions from advisory panelists: "We'll take those recommendations under consideration and develop a long-range strategic plan to submit to supervisors."

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