County OKs Contract With Ventura Fire Dept. : Government: Supervisors say it is cheaper to pay the city for protection of north Ventura Avenue area than to operate a station.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ventura County will pay the city of Ventura $75,272 to provide a year of fire and medical protection to north Ventura Avenue residents under an agreement adopted by city and county officials.

County supervisors voted 5 to 0 Tuesday to approve the contract with the Ventura City Fire Department, saying it is cheaper to pay the city to protect the area than to continue operating the county's own station on Ventura Avenue.

In July, the county opted to mothball its Ventura Avenue station, which has been open for more than 50 years, because of budget problems. Fire Chief George E. Lund said the County Fire Department could save at least $750,000 annually by contracting out the services to city firefighters.

"We have lost a valuable resource in the fire district," Lund said of the decision to close the station. "We have one less engine company now. But we have done the best job with the resources we have to provide adequate fire protection service."

On Monday night, the Ventura City Council agreed after heated debate to provide services to the county area that stretches north from Shell Road to Foster Park.

Several council members said they were concerned that the arrangement would endanger city residents. Another council member argued that the city should charge the county more for the services.

But in a compromise move, the council voted 5 to 2 to push forward with the agreement, with the stipulation that city officials would study the matter further.

At one point during the discussion, Councilwoman Cathy Bean asked Ventura Fire Chief Vern Hamilton: "You feel in your heart of hearts you're not putting our own citizens at risk?"

Hamilton assured council members that Station 1--the city station that will respond to calls in the county area--will be able to enlarge its jurisdiction without significantly increasing its response times.

"It isn't going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back," Hamilton said. He added that fire stations from other parts of the city will provide backup support for the area if Station 1 is busy responding to a call from county residents.

"It's a calculated risk, but the percentages are very low," Hamilton said.

Station 1's jurisdiction currently covers the area southwest to Emma Wood State Beach and east to Grant Park. Under the approved agreement, firefighters at the station on Ventura Avenue at Ramona Street will also respond on both sides of the Ojai Freeway.

Mayor Greg Carson and Councilman Jim Monahan voted against the agreement, saying it may put residents at risk.

"I feel it would spread our city personnel too thin," Monahan said.

Although Hamilton told council members that the $75,272 would cover the city's costs, Councilman Todd Collart recommended charging more.

"Seventy-five thousand dollars doesn't sound very comfortable to me," Collart said.

In response, Councilman Jack Tingstrom argued, "No matter who's paying, it's the taxpayers' money."

At one point in the evening, the council voted narrowly against the agreement. Monahan, Carson, Collart and Councilman Gary Tuttle did not want to approve the contract.

But Councilman Tom Buford hammered out a compromise that won approval.

He proposed approving the agreement, but with the recognition that the contract has a 60-day termination clause. At the same time, the issue of how the city should be handling contracts with outside agencies would be discussed by the Finance Committee, consisting of three council members.

County officials on Tuesday said they were pleased the contract won approval.

"It was demonstrated by both chiefs that we could do this, at least temporarily while we look at the whole system," Supervisor Susan K. Lacey said. "We could do it for a cost-effective amount of money. Both chiefs have clearly testified that it is not putting anyone at risk."

The amount of the contract was agreed to after city and county officials calculated the number of calls to the county's station--located at Ventura Avenue and Canada Larga Road--served over the previous 12 months. According to county figures, the facility responded to 173 incidents during the period.

Although the number of calls in the county area is small, Ventura Fire Capt. Barry Simmons said he believes the agreement could pose a threat to city residents.

"We are leaving behind a very densely populated area," said Simmons, who is based at Station 1. "Your odds go way up of being spread too thin during a critical time. . . . But we will do the best we can with what we have."

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