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San Fernando Dilemma : Ban on Fireworks Studied in Bid to Keep Fire Service

Times Staff Writer

San Fernando officials, faced with an ultimatum to ban fireworks sales or lose their fire protection contract with the city of Los Angeles, have been told that Los Angeles firefighters offer the best available service at the lowest cost.

Debate on the issue has been heated because of last summer’s decision by Los Angeles fire commissioners and the City Council to refuse to renew a 10-year-old fire service contract unless San Fernando quits selling Fourth of July fireworks, a longstanding tradition in the small town.

Mayor Roy Richardson said Tuesday that he “will not take a second-rate fire alternative to preserve fireworks” sales in the city. Based on a city report prepared by a consultant, “it looks as if we don’t have too many alternatives,” he said.

But Councilman Jess Margarito said he wants to try to preserve a tradition that permits nonprofit groups in the city to sell fireworks for fund-raising purposes.

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Dependent on Sales

Since 1949, about 20 organizations have depended on the sale of what are called “safe and sane” fireworks for their financial lifeblood, earning as much as $5,000 each.

Because the sale of fireworks is illegal in Los Angeles, officials there have long scorned the practice in San Fernando. Last summer’s threat prompted San Fernando officials to order a study of fire service alternatives.

Under the existing contract, which expires June 30, San Fernando pays Los Angeles about $1.4 million a year for fire protection.

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The report states that the Los Angeles Fire Department “provides high service levels to San Fernando” that are generally not available to small cities.

Further, the service is less expensive than the two main alternatives studied--to form a San Fernando City fire department or sign up for service with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, according to the report.

Higher Cost

It would cost almost twice as much--about $2.2 million--to contract with the county, if the county would even consider providing protection in San Fernando. The report stated that “it is not clear” whether the county would find it feasible to serve the 2.4-square-mile city because there are no county fire stations nearby.

To establish an in-house fire department would cost $1.5 million to $2 million annually, depending on the extent of services. In addition, the city would have to pay as much as $1.4 million to purchase equipment, the report stated.

A new fire department would “represent a lower performance differential” than the service provided by Los Angeles because of the backup services and equipment available, the report said.

Councilman James B. Hansen said continued sales of fireworks would take a back seat to his concern for providing the best fire protection for the city.

Fund-Raising Alternatives

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“I know how important fund-raising is, but there are alternatives to that,” Hansen said. “I don’t think there is an alternative when you need an ambulance or a fire engine.”

Margarito said he is most interested in starting an in-house fire department because San Fernando should have “local autonomy” when it comes to providing basic services. “That is why we are our own jurisdiction,” he said.

Councilman Evelio Franco agreed that control is important.

“I don’t see why Los Angeles is condemning us,” Franco said. “All these community groups depend on the fireworks money.”

Council members are slated to discuss the report Nov. 28.


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