Nearly a dozen cities and the Fresno County Fire Department are locked in debate over who should put out fires on city edges -- and, more importantly, who lays claim to the millions of dollars of taxes paid for the service.
The dispute comes as cities, notably Fresno and Clovis, expand into rural areas, and city firefighters take over not only the work of county firefighters but their payout in property taxes.
Most cities compensate the Fresno County Fire Department for the tax money it loses. But those decade-old compensation deals between cities and the Fire Department expire at the end of the year, and some don't want to see the agreements renewed, at least in their current form.
"We have some serious concerns," said Fresno Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd, who doesn't think the city should continue paying the county Fire Department when the department is absolved of its duties. "We're ending up having to subsidize rural fire protection services."
The Fresno County Fire Protection District counters that if it loses city money, its district-wide fire and medical response will suffer. Nearly a quarter-million people between the Sierra and coast ranges -- mostly those who live in unincorporated areas -- will bear the brunt.
"Residents shouldn't receive less service because the cities grow," county Fire Chief Keith Larkin said. "That doesn't make sense."
The failure of the parties to reach new agreements not only leaves funding in question. It creates uncertainties about fire service: the fire district, for example, has told some cities that it wants to continue being the lead firefighting agency on some newly annexed land rather than turn over the responsibility to cities, as part of any new deal.
A more fundamental issue, in the absence of the agreements, is whether city expansion can even continue. The agency in charge of approving city annexations requires cities to have up-to-date agreements with the county fire district before annexing more fire district land.
Kingsburg is one city with an annexation on the table -- hundreds of acres north of town -- but no agreement with the fire district.
Most city-district agreements call for cities, upon any annexation, to pay the fire district -- upfront -- a percentage of the property tax it stands to lose over 10 years. This fire transition fee is meant to soften the district's revenue blow.
Theoretically, cities can afford the fee because of the rising property taxes they get when land is annexed and developed. Some cities, such as Fresno and Clovis, also require developers to chip in.
Fire district officials could not say exactly how much money they've collected from cities. But county records suggest that the fire fees, during big annexation years, have brought in a million dollars or so to a budget that is roughly $18 million this year.
The fee program, though, has not always worked out smoothly. Questions about whether cities are paying the fire district as much as they agreed to have been the basis of at least two lawsuits.
In one case, the courts ruled for the city of Fresno (though the fire district is appealing). In another case, Clovis and the fire district remain in mediation.
"The negotiating relationship between the district and the cities has not been good," acknowledged John Holt, assistant city manager of Clovis.
Bad blood is just one thing complicating the current negotiations, Holt said. The slowdown in the housing market is another. Cities are a lot less willing to commit money to the fire district than they used to be, he says.
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