I’ve recently read and heard comments regarding the relationship between cities and fire districts. These comments have been something to the effect that cities “have a statutory responsibility to provide for fire protection”. I appreciate this opportunity to explain how, depending on circumstances, these comments are not true.
The California Government Code and Article XI of the California Constitution provide for the creation and existence of local government agencies. California local government is comprised of counties, cities, special districts and regional bodies. The California State Constitution has established two forms of city government: General Law and Charter. In California there are 361 general law cities and 121 charter cities. In Contra Costa 17 of 19 cities are general law, Richmond and San Ramon are the exceptions.
A General-Law City is formed under State legislative statutes and governed by a body of laws in the State Constitution. Government code section 36501 authorizes general law cities:
The government of a general law city is vested in:
(a) A city council of at least five members.
(b) A city clerk.
(c) A city treasurer.
(d) A chief of police.
(e) A fire chief.
(f) Any subordinate officers or employees provided by law.
This statue may imply that cities are responsible for establishing fire departments. However, a few sections down in the same Government Code, section 38611 reads:
The legislative body of a city organized under general law shall establish a fire department for the city. The fire department shall be under the charge of a chief who shall have had previous training and experience as a fireman. The other members of the fire department shall consist of paid firemen or such companies of volunteer firemen as the legislative body may determine. The city legislative body shall fix and pay the compensation of the chief and other paid firemen.
Notwithstanding the provisions of this section, and of subdivision (e) of Section 36501, no general law city shall be required to appoint or elect a fire chief or establish a fire department if such city is included within the boundaries of an established fire protection district (bold and italics added)
The last paragraph absolves the cities of Oakley and Brentwood of any “statutory responsibility” to provide fire services and clearly places that responsibility on the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD). If the city of Oakley or the city of Brentwood would like to assume the responsibility of providing fire services to their respective communities a number of events would need to happen.
First, ECCFPD would need to be dissolved. This process is done through the Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCO) and would need to be initiated either by the fire district, petitioned by registered voters, or initiated by LAFCO itself. LAFCOs are independent regulatory commissions created by the California Legislature to control the boundaries of cities and most special districts. LAFCOs control nine types of boundary changes: annexations, detachments, disincorporations, dissolutions, formations, incorporations, mergers, consolidations, subsidiary districts, and reorganizations. All of California’s 58 counties have LAFCOs.
New districts with new boundaries would need to be created and processed by LAFCO following the guidelines stated in The Fire Protection District Law of 1987 http://sgf.senate.ca.gov/thefireprotectiondistrictlawof1987
A process of somehow convincing LAFCO to dissolve ECCFPD in order to place the burden on the cities is draconian in its premise and will ultimately not meet the needs of the residents of Far East County. ECCFPD will not go bankrupt and will continue into the future being able to provide at least a three-engine response to 250 square miles and over 100,000 residents. In no way is this adequate, but is all ECCFPD will be able to provide without new revenue.
The cities of Oakley and Brentwood cannot provide a long term funding solution for the fire district. What ultimately needs to happen is that ECCFPD develop a long-term strategic plan that involves community participation. Short-term “quick fixes” are not in the best interest of the District’s residents; neither is any type of interference or attempt to control the District by the cities or the County. Change doesn’t happen by itself. Any long-term solution must involve the public to succeed. Steps must be taken by the Fire Chief and Fire Board to educate and empower residents so they will better understand the complexities and challenges facing the District. Relationships must be reestablished and/or developed to ensure that a clear and comprehensive message is being delivered from a single source, ECCFPD.