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Fire Authority Withdraws Bid to Serve Westminster

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Fire Authority announced Sunday it has formally withdrawn its bid to provide fire and emergency services to Westminster, following a judge’s order temporarily barring the city from accepting the authority’s offer.

The announcement caps months of negotiations, during which city officials had decided to disband their own fire department and accept the county’s offer to provide services for $5.9 million a year, a considerable savings over what the city had been spending.

Responding to the withdrawn bid, Mayor Charles V. Smith said late Sunday, “We are demolished over this thing. It’s very disappointing.”

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He said Westminster now may be forced to lay off 22 firefighters in order to cut costs or contract for services with a private firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Two days before the city’s July 1 deadline for ratifying a contract with the authority, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Paez issued a temporary restraining order preventing Westminster from signing a contract pending the outcome of a civil rights lawsuit accusing the city of illegally firing four firefighters last year.

Among other things, the lawsuit demands reinstatement for the four former firefighters, alleging that they were improperly ousted amid false accusations of payroll fraud that seriously damaged their reputations and careers.

The city has denied any wrongdoing in the matter, and a hearing has been set for July 18.

Despite the county’s announcement Sunday, it may still be possible to reach an agreement with Westminster.

“This doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be open to another contract in the future,” said Emmy Day, a fire authority spokeswoman. “It just means that it’s our policy not to get involved in labor or litigation issues. Once that’s resolved, we’d be more than happy to propose another contract. The ball’s back in their court.”

According to Smith, however, the city can’t afford to wait.

“This is going to result in Westminster operating right now at about $130,000 more a month than we can afford,” he said. “We’ve been driven right to the point of bankruptcy and our reserve isn’t large enough to hang on pending the outcome of this litigation, so we have to do something drastic.”

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The city’s only options, Smith said, are to contract immediately with Rural/Metro, a private firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz., which submitted a bid for emergency services only slightly higher than the county’s, or to lay off 22 city firefighters and privatize the city’s paramedic services.

The Westminster City Council will meet Tuesday night to discuss the matter, Smith said.

“I think we’ll have to make a decision,” he said. “Our backs are against the wall and we can’t waste any time.”

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