COUNTYWIDE : Cities Might Set Up Separate Fire Agency

Tired of being at the mercy of the County Board of Supervisors, cities that contract with the county for fire protection are considering bowing out of the deal and forming their own fire agency.

Under the plan, the county would continue to provide fire protection, but the cities, not the Board of Supervisors, would decide how the program would be run. The present service is not inadequate, officials concede. They just want a greater say in the process.

"Right now, it is like being once removed from the decisions," said Cypress City Manager Darrell Essex, who supports the idea. "Like anything else, you don't feel like you have control unless you are sitting on the board."

County officials could not be reached for comment.

The Orange County Fire Department, under the direction of the Board of Supervisors, has been providing fire protection to unincorporated areas and several cities since 1980. During the 11 years, the county's makeup has changed considerably. Cities continue to take the place of orange groves and open fields and now compose 86% of the Fire Department's service population.

While the county has changed, the way the Fire Department is administered has not.

Each participating municipality chips in to a fire fund that is used to finance everything from the station's bunk beds to engine trucks. How much a city gives depends on its property tax revenue.

Led by the city of Irvine, a study completed last June found that several of the wealthier communities were paying considerably more than their not-so-rich counterparts. Irvine City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr. said the city gives nearly $15 million, about $7 million more than it receives in services.

"It (the $7 million) goes to bail out some of the other cities that don't have the higher valuation," Brady said. If formed, the new fire district would try to eliminate these inequities, he added.

During December, the 16 city councils involved in setting up a special district are expected to decide whether or not to support the plan. Cypress, one of the first to look at it, voted in favor this week.

However, even if all the cities agree, there are still several hurdles.

After negotiations with county officials, the idea must go before voters in the proposed district for approval. It also would have to gain the support of the Local Agency Formation Commission and finally be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

If all goes according to plan, the district could be formed as early as January, 1993, officials speculate. But even if it doesn't get that far, the cities have several options, Brady said. They could negotiate with the supervisors when budget time comes around, contract with nearby cities for fire service or just keep things the way they are, he said.

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