The Orange County Fire Authority’s board quickly and quietly signed off on its 2010-11 budget on Thursday night. The budget calls for a cut to the general fund by $5 million but gives no sense at this point as to where it will come from.
“This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” said Doug Davert — chairman of the Fire Authority’s board of directors — as the directors settled in at the dais. “What is before us tonight is a new budget that we can no longer defer.”
At the May meeting, directors and county supervisors Pat Bates and Janet Nguyen blasted a new round of fee hikes — on things like construction reviews and permit inspections — which are tied to a 3 percent COLA raise for non-sworn personnel.
“We’re talking about fees that affect unemployed people,” Bates said, which was a reference to how the fees would affect the building industry. “In good conscience I cannot support this.”
A budget ad-hoc committee, formed at that meeting, was to negotiate with the labor groups involved and come up with savings to avert the fee hikes. The committee was tasked with coming to an agreement by Thursday.
The committee didn’t make that goal. At Thursday’s board meeting, the directors were forced to sign off on the budget or have the Fire Authority cease operations altogether.
The board then gave the committee another 90 to 120 days to continue working on a solution to the fee hikes. Until the committee finds an alternative, the fire authority will be paying half the COLA (1.5 percent) without additional revenue from the fee hikes, starting July 1, according to Fire Authority spokesman Kris Concepcion.
Joe Kerr told me on Thursday that they’re still in the middle of discussing a compromise. “We’re not that far along — not even close,” Kerr said.
Although the source of the $5 million in general fund cuts is a mystery, Davert said labor costs make-up most of the budget.
“If we can’t save much on labor, there’s not much else to cut,” Davert said.
Separate from the passing of the budget, the directors also agreed to raise a number of reimbursement rates, including rates on OCFA services to agencies like CAL FIRE and the National Forest Service and rates for on-site special event coverage such as boxing matches.
The county might also increase reimbursement rates on firefighter medics, who administer advanced life support services, rented out to private ambulances. The ambulance companies requested an 11 percent increase.
The rate — which is part of a private-public partnership between the ambulance companies and the Fire Authority — are based on annual Consumer Price Index evaluations, which Fire Chief Keith Richter said were actually slightly negative this year. The county Board of Supervisors decided not to raise rates last year, however; so the supervisors are looking at a 4 percent increase.
Many of the directors expressed a desire to recommend the county not raise rates at all, and Mark Nielsen made a motion for such a recommendation, though his motion failed to get enough votes.
Richter said that the county could very well decide not to raise the rates, but he also said that for the private-public partnership to remain viable “at some point ambulance companies have to be profitable.”