Aug. 04--SAN BERNARDINO -- City Manager Allen Parker will ask the City Council today for permission to request proposals from outside fire departments that may be able to provide the city fire services for less money.
Agencies that could provide service instead of the San Bernardino Fire Department include the San Bernardino County Fire Department and Cal Fire, according to a one-page report recommending the council direct Parker to request proposals and negotiate with any agencies that respond.
"Further, this comparative data will be utilized to demonstrate to the Bankruptcy Court the long-term sustainability for the provision of fire services within the submitted Plan-of-Adjustment," the report says. "The City must make decisions, evaluate options, and provide accurate information for the Plan-of-Adjustment. Proposals from qualified agencies will assist in that process."
Previous councils have voted on whether to request proposals to outsource fire services several times, most recently the day before November's election. That vote failed, with three council members voting yes, two voting no, one seat absent because 5th Ward Councilman Chas Kelley had just resigned, and then-Councilwoman Wendy McCammack refusing to vote in a parliamentary move that prevented then-Mayor Pat Morris from breaking the tie in favor of requesting proposals.
McCammack, who said her action was to preserve the voice of residents in the fire-prone 5th Ward, was recalled the next day and replaced by Councilman Jim Mulvihill, who said he favored exploring outsourcing.
But Councilman Fred Shorett, who had brought forward the previous attempts to ask for proposals, switched tactics at the next meeting and instead won support for a professional study into ways the city could more efficiently provide fire services.
That $75,000 study by Citygate Associates, presented to the City Council in June, advised against requesting contracts at this time.
Cal Fire said it wouldn't respond because of the city's bankruptcy; no other agencies were interested in a joint powers authority; and annexation to the county could take two years, leading Citygate to conclude "this option does not provide any immediate cost reduction relief in the current fiscal crisis."
Shorett and others, though, have argued that even longer-term savings -- he calculated $8 million to $12 million per year based on the difference in per-station spending by Highland and San Bernardino -- are worth pursuing in the bankrupt city.
Another hurdle is the city charter, which some -- including previous City Attorney James F. Penman-- have interpreted as requiring the city to keep fire services in-house.
"The Fire Department shall consist of a Chief of the Fire Department and as many ranking officers, firefighters, and other employees as the Mayor and Council may determine," the charter says. It also says the chief must be chosen by the mayor and approved by the council.
The recommendation the council is scheduled to consider Monday also notes another charter provision: "Council shall have power to establish and maintain a fire department, prescribe fire limits and adopt regulations for the protection of the City against fires."
Neither section is among the five proposed amendments that will be put on this November's ballot if the council approves Thursday. But one of those amendments could strengthen arguments that contracting out is allowed: an addition that would read, "The language contained in this Charter is intended to be permissive and enabling rather than restrictive or limiting, and shall be liberally and broadly construed in favor of the exercise by the City of its power to govern with respect to any matter which is a municipal affair."
Under state law, the soonest the council could put a change on the ballot other than the five for which it has already held public hearings is 2016.
At the July 17 council meeting, Parker said it was city staff's opinion that any move to outsource should come after a charter change because otherwise the legality of the outsourcing would be challenged legally.
The council voted to request a proposal to outsourcing police services in 2012, after Penman advised it but said it would require amending the charter, but shelved it after the Sheriff's Department reported it would spend the same amount of money to provide less service.
Contracting out other functions -- not mentioned in the city charter -- has proven less controversial. Most recently, the council unanimously approved the elimination of 12 jobs when it outsourced park maintenance.
The meeting begins at 4 p.m. in council chambers, 300 North D St.
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