Santa Paula Times

City Council questions aspects of proposed fire annexation issue

March 24, 2017
Santa Paula News

The City Council had several questions and learned more about public safety facilities in East Area 1 at the March 20 meeting when they were updated on the possible annexation of the Santa Paula Fire Department into the Ventura County Fire Protection District (VCFPD).

SPFD Chief Rick Araiza offered a progress update on the potential move of fire services, largely resulting from the end of a staffing grant that pays for five firefighters for the cash strapped city.

Araiza said he is still receiving information and would return April 3 with a resolution for annexation and tax sharing agreement needed to start the process with LAFCo.

“We’re shooting for September 1” for the transfer of services if the council agrees to the plan.

Although it has been stressed that the city is on the “freeway” with “off ramps along the way” Araiza said there could be significant costs involved.

“There are large fees with LAFCo and the county would be picking up the fees,” but if the city decided against annexing services to the VCFPD they might be responsible for half of the cost.

“We’re continuing to talk to the county, the transition is coming rapidly,” and Araiza said he and VCFPD Chief Mark Lorenzen met with the Limoneira-Lewis group — developers of the Harvest at Limoneira — regarding the potential merger.

“They were fine with county coming in,” although Araiza said there are some issues regarding roads; Limoneira’s development agreement has locked in fees.

County Fire will continue to attend Limoneira meetings so there are “no surprises…”

Being finalized is other financial information including fee comparisons and unfunded retirements.

Discussions have also been held on facilities: the county, said Araiza, has allocated $16 million for two new stations, one east of the city near the Harvest development and a second on the west end of the city. The VCFPD would lease existing stations during construction.

Once vacant, Station 82 located immediately west of the Community Center would be used by the Recreation Department.

“We are still discussing Station 81,” located on South 10th Street, in regard to delivery of service.

When fire is dispatched on a call, “we move a lot” with engines taking on the suddenly unmanned area.

Both ends of town would be covered with new stations, but it might take both “a little longer” to serve midtown, a concern to the county. 

“Station 81 is centrally located, which is nice…” 

Overall, Araiza said there are other advantages to county service, including the possibility of paramedic service.

City Councilman Martin Hernandez asked Araiza if a union represents him.

When Araiza replied no, Hernandez said, “It is a strong desire of mine,” that the fire chief, who has served the city well for decades, be taken care of and his services be included in the county’s offer.

Araiza has not broached the subject with Lorenzen, but “I would love someone to discuss it for me,” he said good-naturedly.

City Manager Jaime Fontes said alternatives for Araiza, who also serves as the city’s Building & Safety Director, are being examined.

Councilman John Procter wanted details on finances, specifically clarity of how much it represents of property tax revenue.

Statements have been made that the 16.5 percent the county is quoting the city is actually 80 percent of the property tax. 

Araiza noted that the 16.5 percent of the property tax the city would provide the county in the case of annexation is just one of many shared expenditures already made from the funds.

“For every dollar,” collected, “we get about 20 cents,” due to transfers to school districts, the library and United Water Conservation District, among others.

When separate districts the high school and elementary districts took about 30 percent of the city’s property tax.

“There’s college districts, ERAF…everybody,” he added, “takes from your dollar. It’s not 80 percent.”

“To clarify, that’s not 16.5 percent of our dollar, it’s 16.5 percent of our 20 cents,” said Mayor Jenny Crosswhite of the fire district proposal.

“No, it’s 16.5 percent of our dollar,” said Araiza, which does amount to 80 percent of the approximately 20 cents the city actually receives.

Araiza said what the county has quoted the city for fire services is in sync with percentages agreed to by other cities; Santa Paula’s share he noted, would be $2.5 million a year. 

He noted that Moorpark, a city close in size to Santa Paula with much higher property tax revenue, pays the county $10 million annually for fire services. 

“It’s all proportional, it’s the fairest way to do it,” he said.

Procter said the public wants clear information on costs for such an important issue and he would like the information well in advance.

“It’s a big decision,” said Procter.

Araiza said he would resend to the council financial information provided before with clarifications.

“Has there been any discussion on the police department storefront,” asked Crosswhite of the mini-facility planned for the new Harvest at Limoneira fire station.

“We discussed that at the last meeting with Limoneira,” and, said Araiza, the development agreement specifically states the new station will provide police “a place to shower and rest,” but “It’s not a storefront…”

City Attorney John Cotti said the development agreement would be brought back at a future meeting.

Said Araiza, “It’s a concern because $750,000 went away,” from the initial $4,750,000 Limoneira allocated for construction of the fire station.

The council learned at an earlier meeting that the previous council had agreed to accept a $750,000 “grant” from Limoneira to be matched by the city over a three-year period to improve policing. The sum was taken from the Limoneira allocation for the fire station.  

“I would like to bring back a clarification of what is the agreement, what is required for a police presence in East Area 1,” said Crosswhite. 

Procter said retirement costs must also be nailed down.  

“It was in discussion but never brought back,” said Araiza. “We did bring it up, we discussed that but they didn’t feel it was within the deal.”

The issue he added can be negotiated.

“I would like to see that get a definitive answer,” said Procter, who said he wants to know what would happen with the unfunded liability before he makes a decision on annexation.