Countywide : Plan for Multi-City Fire Agency Grows

A plan to transfer control of the Orange County Fire Department from the County Board of Supervisors to the cities served by the department is underway.

Six of the 18 cities have approved a joint-powers agreement to form the Orange County Fire Authority, and over the next few weeks 12 more city councils are expected to vote on the agreement.

Los Alamitos, Mission Viejo, San Clemente, La Palma, Placentia and Yorba Linda have approved the agreement.

Irvine City Manager Paul Brady said Cypress, Dana Point, Irvine, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, San Juan Capistrano, Seal Beach, Stanton and Tustin are all expected to approve the agreement by August.

Buena Park, which recently voted to contract fire protection services from the county department, is also expected to approve the agreement.

Villa Park has expressed some reservations about the fire authority, but City Manager Fred Maley said he is recommending that the City Council approve the agreement when it meets July 26.

The fire authority is the second attempt by the cities to gain more control over how the fire department's $80-million budget is spent.

Last year, an Assembly bill was introduced that would have created a special fire district governed equally by the cities and the county, but the bill wasn't approved.

"An equivalent or even better result may be achieved via a joint-powers authority," said a report to the Placentia and Yorba Linda city councils. "The JPA approach will ensure city control."

The county must also approve the agreement. Brady said the supervisors are expected to do so, especially since the cities have the option of pulling out of the county Fire Department and taking much of the budget with them.

"If the Board of Supervisors rejects the plan, each of the cities can decide to form its own department, or contract with another fire department or even form another regional fire department," Brady said.

One wild card in the effort to create the fire authority is the firefighters union.

Union officials have expressed concern that authority would be transferred from the five-member Board of Supervisors to a 17-member fire authority.

According to Fire Chief Larry Holms, firefighters are primarily concerned about losing their jobs and potential cuts in pay and benefits.

"There has been a great amount of discussion" about the fire authority, Holms said. "The concerns expressed by firefighters revolve around job security and the possible impact on (contract) negotiations."

Holms said he thinks having the cities involved more closely in decision-making is a good idea.

"When the department was formed, it was responsible for mostly unincorporated area," Holms said. "Now 85% of the service we provide is to cities. It only makes sense that there would be a handoff in how the department is managed."

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