The LA County FD could wind up handling all fire services for Montrey Park (photo: Flickr/LAFD)
To say finances for local governments in California are challenging, is a drastic understatement. Municipalities are so mired in meeting that challenge that many have had no choice but to consolidate services. The city of Monterey Park, just 10 miles east of Los Angeles, is one example.
The city council recently voted to hold a special election for a ballot measure to transfer services. On July 9, residents will go to the polls to decide whether the city should transfer its fire and paramedic services from local control to Los Angeles County.
In early 2012, the city council created an ad hoc committee to address the issue which concluded that transferring would offer equal services and would not cost the city more money. However, there would be a reduction in on-site staff, from 17 to 12 per shift, and it would cost the city $300,000 more for police department pension costs.
As you can imagine, this is a heated debate within the city.
“Things are changing, whether they are good or not, things are changing and one of the things changing dramatically is the financial state of not only the nation but particularly of small communities,” said Betty Morin, chair of the Fire department ad hoc committee. “I’d like to keep all services local…but I not only want to see this community survive, I want it to prosper. And we are in very difficult economic times right now.”
“We would still have paramedics, we would still have ALS. The only difference is we would be working more efficiently,” said Christine Chandler, another ad hoc committee member. “To say LA County’s firefighters are any different than Monterey’s is appalling. I know that our little city cannot sustain this any longer and the prudent thing to do, the wise thing to do if we want our citizens to remain safe, is to join the county.”
“I think it’s important for the city to be a city, to be its own city,” said Joseph Rubin, ad hoc committee member. “I think we are sort of surrendering a piece of our own city when we take a step like this and that’s an element of great concern and it’s become my primary concern.”
Monterey Park’s own Fire chief also sounded off.
“The demand for for services is ever-increasing but with diminishing resources, coupled with increasing state and federal mandates and increasing public demands for accountability and additional programs, we’re stretched thin,” said Fire chief Jim Birrell. “Consolidations and mergers are happening all across the nation. It’s estimated that in 1990 there were only 20-25 consolidations nationwide. Now there are well over 500 such efforts in one stage or another throughout the nation.”
He’s right. In fact, if residents decide to transfer services, Monterey Park won’t be the first city to do so and they most certainly won’t be the last.
“Look, you’re going to see more and more of this over time, it’s inevitable that cities and counties and other various districts wake up, smell the coffee and realize there are efficiencies to be received by merging and consolidating. Monterey Park sending their services to LA County Fire will save them money,” said Larry Gerston, auther, professor at San Jose State University and California politics expert.
According to Gerston, in San Mateo County, a number of jurisdictions have alreadyoff-loaded fire services and police services in the last three to four years and they’ve all saved money.
“People are going to see, sooner or later, that the benefits of having your own local jurisdiction are exceeded by the costs. As people begin to see that precious resources are not as available as they used to be, dollars, you have to come to terms with very crucial decisions,” said Gerston.
“If the only reason for not doing it, and it’s really a simple one, and that is “I know this fire department, I know this police department”—people identify with these small, local agencies and jurisdictions as their own. What they don’t realize they are paying through the nose for this kind of thing. It made sense 50 years ago before the state became so urbanized.”
Now the people of Monterey Park must decide what they think is best when they head to the polls in a few short months.
“I’m talking to the citizens, because you’re going to be the vote, so you need to wake up,” said JPaul Susaki, ad hoc committee member. “We’re looking at world class resources that we’re gonna have people, if we go county. Cities that belong to LA County Fire include La Canada, Marina del Rey, West Hollywood, Universal City, Westlake, Calabasas—these are big cities people, and you don’t see in the L.A. Times that they’re complaining about the county services.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it failed the first time or two because these ideas are new and people have a hard time dealing with change. This is a tough argument because we’re going in a different way then we have in the last couple hundred years but it will happen,” said Gerston.
Coming up with creative ways to provide public services with improved efficiency at a reduced cost—finding the right but also pragmatic solution isn’t easy, but it’s the hand these local governments have been dealt with.