Santa Paula Times

Merger talks: Chief Skeels offers new scenario for fire services

June 23, 2004
Santa Paula City Council

The debate over whether or not the Santa Paula Fire Department should be merged with the Ventura County Fire Protection District had a new scenario to consider when Fire Chief Paul Skeels spoke up at the June 14 City Council meeting.

By Peggy KellySanta Paula TimesThe debate over whether or not the Santa Paula Fire Department should be merged with the Ventura County Fire Protection District had a new scenario to consider when Fire Chief Paul Skeels spoke up at the June 14 City Council meeting.“Frankly, as your fire chief I would like the opportunity to see what I could do,” with the approximately $600,000, the city’s cost starting point for a county merger, said Chief Skeels.Chief Skeels’ remarks followed a long discussion on the issue including input from VCFPD Chief Bob Roper, the full-time firefighters’ union president and a full-time and paid-call volunteer firefighter, among other speakers.Chief Skeels conceded that the SPFD has experienced “an awful lot of turmoil the past year” but claims that the department’s paid-call volunteers lack training and the present department presents a risk to residents are untrue.“. . .I would sleep equally well whether served by the Santa Paula Fire Department or the county,” he noted.Chief Skeels has studied department finances and said that he could beef up services using a combination of full-time and paid-call volunteer firefighters.“Would it be perfect? Of course not,” but the department would be “more consistent with the county.”Chief Skeels agreed with the statement of Asst. Chief Rick Araiza, that “the worse thing to do is do nothing. . .it would be a mistake to continue business as usual,” without significant additional funding including a portion of the upcoming public safety tax measure.Station 2 could be subject to a phased in staffing program similar to the plan discussed by the council last year.The city and county enjoy an “excellent working relationship. . .I want to make sure that it goes on record that your members are highly professional” who provide service comparable to his own department, said VCFPD Chief Bob Roper.The county’s offer is $1.8 million annually – labor costs are subject to increase – for two full-time stations, he added.Additional one-time costs would be for station upgrades, among other needs.Full-time firefighters would retain seniority and paid-call volunteers would be tapped for a one-time county recruitment, Chief Roper added.Transfer or new firefighters would have to pass the county physical, be subject to a probationary period and could lose rank, Councilman Rick Cook learned after he asked several personnel questions.“I don’t want to hear from the union, I want to know who actually has the juice,” said Cook.
Chief Roper said a workers’ compensation injury “may preclude them from coming to work for us. . .we’re not going to buy an injury,” and other personnel issues are subject to authorization.A lengthy discussion on the LAFCO annexation process and the complex merger finances that are yet to be resolved were also discussed.“At this point because of your ballot issues,” a definitive answer on the percentage of property tax that would be shifted to the county is not possible before the council finalizes the ballot measure, said Chief Roper.LAFCO also mandates a threshold of protest votes that could either require voter approval of a merger or kill the deal altogether.One issue cleared up for the council was just how many SPFD full-time firefighters are in favor of the merger.Ventura County Professional Firefighters Union President Chris Mahon said a “strong majority” of the eight full-time firefighters are advocates of a merger.“Just say five,” said Councilman Ray Luna.“Okay,” Mahon replied.Mayor Gabino Aguirre noted that the council was being asked to either “say no to the county or agree to continue to have discussions.”“I think we’re at a plateau,” noted City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.Monetary impacts to the city’s Redevelopment Agency are a “real issue” that could hamper economic development and agreements with the school districts and the library – who receive a share of RDA funding – would have to be reexamined.“It could take six months,” before the city had all the answers, he added.Councilman John Procter said discussions should be continued to garner full information, but Cook noted that unanswered questions remain and more would probably surface.“I’m actually looking down the road and I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Luna said of the proposed merger.Luna was the only council member who voted against continued merger discussions.