At next Tuesday's meeting, the Hesperia City Council will have a choice between a balanced budget and keeping firefighting service intact.
City property taxes, which fund approximately 57 percent of the Hesperia Fire District dropped half a million dollars in two years, from $4.3 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year to $3.8 million in the 2010-2011 year. Officials believe next year's revenue will drop another $100,000. (The new fiscal year begins July 1.)
With the district no longer breaking even, the city last year drained much of the fire district's reserves to pay its bills. That's a break from normal city policy, which is to use reserves only for one-time expenditures, and not ongoing expenses.
With the reserves gone, and residents historically unwilling to approve new taxes or bonds at the ballot box, staff presented the council at Tuesday's budget workshop with several options to cut expenditures down to match revenues.
(And even then, the district needed $1.9 million dollars from the city's general fund -- which can be used more or less unrestricted, and pays for a wide variety of city services -- to balance the fire district budget and restore its reserves.)
The choice recommended by staff at Tuesday's budget workshop: cut nine firefighters -- one per station, per shift, putting two firefighters on each engine, instead of the current three.
"The city does have general fund reserves," firefighter Jeremy Kern, who represents Local 935 of San Bernardino County Professional Firefighters union, said Wednesday. "What we're asking is that they fund us out of the general fund reserves at the same level we're at right now."
"If you do that year after year, you run out of general fund" monies, City Manager Mike Podegracz said Wednesday.
"Times are tough right now," said Kern. "What are the city's priorities? From our perspective, it's safety services."
The proposed cuts would drop Hesperia's firefighting staff to 1990 numbers, according to Kern, and put the district in conflict with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which says that firefighters should only enter a burning building if there are at least two people going in and two staying outside, both as back-up and to handle the radio and pumping water.
"With a two-man engine, what are we going to do?" Kern said Wednesday. "That's just an extremely unsafe situation."
Seventy-five to 80 percent of calls into Hesperia firefighters are medical calls, but for actual structure fires, firefighters would have to wait for a second engine to arrive before going in, legally.
The reality, he said, is that firefighters will likely end up going in anyway, Kern said, a point that was conceded by Mayor Mike Leonard, a retired firefighter himself, at Tuesday's workshop.
"We're not just going to stand by," Kern said. "It's not really fair to us or our families."
"The council understands that having one less firefighter/paramedic is not a good thing," said Podegracz. "None of it is a good call."
The next regular meeting of the Hesperia City Council will take place on June 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Hesperia City Hall, 9700 Seventh Avenue.
Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 760-956-7108 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.