South Gate, County in Legal Battle Over Firefighter Cutbacks

Times Staff Writer

The city is suing the county's Consolidated Fire Protection District over the district's decision to reduce the number of firefighters stationed here by 50% in the past 12 months.

In the suit filed March 28 in Los Angeles Superior Court, the city claims that the reductions have endangered residents. In interviews, however, fire district officials said the city is adequately protected by firefighters stationed in nearby cities such as Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, and in the unincorporated area of Willowbrook.

Fire district officials reduced the number of firefighters in South Gate after they asked the city for an increase of $280,000 in property taxes allocated to the district. The city has repeatedly refused to increase its annual payments to the district.

In a hearing on Monday, Judge Jack M. Newman declined the city's request for a temporary restraining order to stop the district from transferring one fire engine and three firefighters per shift out of Fire Station 54 on Southern Avenue. The firefighters were transferred out of the city on Tuesday.

The judge, however, agreed to schedule a hearing for April 30 on a preliminary injunction sought by the city. If granted, the injunction would force the district to return the firefighters to South Gate until the lawsuit is tried, lawyers for both the city and county said.

In an interview, South Gate City Atty. Bruce Boogaard charged that the fire district reduced the number of firefighters in the city "solely because we refused to pay their extortion money."

Deputy Fire Chief Paul C. Delaney disagreed.

The city "refused to negotiate in good faith," he said, adding that South Gate is one of several cities from which the district is seeking more property taxes. He refused to name the other cities.

"We're trying to give the level of fire protection that's paid for and we try to do it throughout the district," Delaney said. He denied, however, that the city had inadequate fire protection.

"That's absolutely not true. They have adequate fire protection. . . . The people in and around South Gate certainly get their money's worth."

Allegations Discounted

Eric Young, the principal deputy county counsel handling the case, said the allegations raised in the city's suit are untrue. He declined further comment, saying he needed more time to study the suit.

The fire district reduced personnel in South Gate after city officials repeatedly refused the district's request for $280,000 worth of property tax revenues that now go to the city's Redevelopment Agency. The fire district in 1983-84 received $1.8 million in property taxes from city residents, but spent more than $2 million to operate three fire stations in the city that same fiscal year, Delaney said.

In April, 1985, after city officials refused to pay additional property taxes to the district, the district closed Fire Station 52 on State Street, and transferred one fire engine and four firefighters per shift out of the city. On Tuesday, after city officials again refused to pay additional money to the district, district officials transferred a second fire engine and three more firefighters out of the city.

The moves left the city with only two fire engines and seven firefighters per shift, compared to the four fire engines and 14 firefighters per shift that were deployed in the city before April, 1985, fire district officials said.

In previous letters to the city, Fire Chief John W. Englund said the district was losing money by providing fire protection for South Gate.

Letter Quoted

In a Sept. 4, 1984, letter to Bruce Spragg, the city's chief administrative officer, Englund said the district "is prepared to reduce its resources within the city unless it receives its full share of CRA (City Redevelopment Agency) revenues."

"To attempt to reach an appropriate balance between the tax revenues and district expenses would require a reduction of at least two engine companies, leaving (the city with) two engine companies with minimum staffing. This level of service is unacceptable to the district and certainly should be unacceptable to the city," Englund wrote.

A study done by James W. Hunt, a consultant hired by the city, said that the removal of one engine and four firefighters per shift from Station 54 on Southern Avenue would "increase the potential for firefighter stress, burnout, faulty judgment, accidents during response and firefighter injury." The study is filed with the city's lawsuit against the fire district.

Consultant Gives Warning

Hunt, a fire protection consultant, also said that, as a result of the decrease in firefighters stationed in the city, "fire prevention activities in the area are likely to suffer and fire or loss of life could increase."

In its suit, the city said the closing of Fire Station 52 on State Street last year broke a 1975 contract between the city and the fire district, which was denied by fire district officials in interviews.

In an interview, Chief David Baumann of Fire Station 54 declined comment on whether the city was adequately protected, but said that his station is busier since Station 52 was closed last year.

"They (fire district officials) make the decisions and we abide by them," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World