The city of Murrieta will move forward in proposing an optional for its residents.
Though no vote was taken, a majority of City Council members said Tuesday they would support it as a partial solution for a bigger problem brought on by a shrinking Murrieta Fire Department reserve pot. In two to four years, the reserves will be gone, officials said.
"We are scrutinizing a cost that is technically not our responsibility but we have been forced to provide it," said Councilman Alan Long. "What we need to look at first (is) can we continue to provide that (and) do our residents want us to provide that?...A fire department is really an inaccurate description of what they do now."
When firefighter/paramedics are called and provide acute care, Murrieta Fire Chief Matt Shobert is proposing charging residents and business owners a $350 fee in an effort to recoup their costs. Those who chose to subscribe annually by paying a $48 fee—or a sliding scale fee for businesses—would qualify for unlimited calls.
"This is a subscription program. If people don’t want to pay we won’t know the difference whether they are a subscriber or not until several days later," Shobert said. "It is not a tax; it is more of an appeal to our community."
No residents spoke in opposition of the fee during Tuesday's nearly two-hour workshop.
Three residents told Council members they would pay $48.
"I don’t have $48 but I will scrounge cans and bottles to pay for it because it is something I need," said resident Diana Serafin.
Chief states case
Shobert said a fiscal imbalance began in 2000 when the department started including paramedics on its engines. This was due to inefficient response times from county ambulance provider American Medical Response, he said.
"Roughly two-thirds of the (7,000) calls we respond to in a year are for medical emergencies," Shobert told Council members.
Murrieta firefighter/paramedics usually arrive on scene prior to American Medical Response, he said. The department arrives within six minutes, 90 percent of the time. AMR—under its contract with Riverside County Emergency Medical Services Agency—must arrive within nine minutes, 59 seconds.
The Fire Department is funded by property tax assessments, which are based on when the department was formed to strictly provide fire protection. With the declining revenue brought on by lower tax rolls experienced since 2008, Shobert said the department has shaved seven administrative positions.
Firefighters have also made concessions, he said, and they no longer travel for training.
The department has also cut back 60 percent on overtime, from $2.5 million to under $1 million this year, he said.
Shobert said short of closing down a fire station and cutting jobs, he is recommending the fee program.
Not so fast
Councilman Randon Lane said he preferred to let residents vote on whether they would support a fee.
"You are calling it a voluntary $48, but the $350 on the back end is not voluntary," Lane said. "Let's ask the voters to make a decision on that and not dictate from here that (they) are going to be assessed that fee...I believe our citizens would support a $48 a year...but to do this tonight, I can not support it."
Lane also advised waiting until the Riverside County Board of Supervisors votes on whether to openly bid the county ambulance contract that has been long-held by AMR.
The cities of Murrieta and Temecula, as well as the Riverside County Fire Department, The supervisors are set to discuss the issue at a meeting next week.
Councilman Long cautioned the county has quoted it could take three to five years for a change to take effect, should it go out to bid.
"We have pleaded with the county to do this for years," Long said. "Since day one.
"If we chose to take paramedics off the engines, we would then force the county into providing the service that is their responsibilty...we have very little say-so...
we take that away we will be giving our citizens a response time that is unacceptable..."
Time is ticking
Mayor Doug McAllister said the Council will not accept a 10-minute response time. Council is expected to tackle the issue again in six weeks.
"We have until six weeks from now to come up with a solution," McAllister said. To do nothing is not an option; the problem has to be solved."
It would take a month or so to draft a program for implementation, City Manager Rick Dudley said.
"The hope would be to get this in place by the 2012-2013 fiscal year that begins in July," Dudley said.