Residents in Murrieta will soon be charged for paramedic services provided by the Fire Department.
Murrieta City Council approved an ordinance establishing the $350 fee by a 4-1 vote after a three-hour discussion. Households who voluntarily subscribe to the paramedic program for $48 a year—$4 a month—would not be charged the $350 fee in the event they are treated by Murrieta Fire Department paramedics.
"The truth of the matter is you are paying $40 a rooftop for fire (services)," said Councilwoman Kelly Bennett, who voted in favor of the fee. "You have never paid for paramedic service—it was a freebie for 12 years or so."
Councilman Randon Lane cast the only dissenting vote, calling the charge a "tax."
"We must live within our means..." Lane said. "I believe we should put this on November ballot and let our citizens decide."
Murrieta fire Chief Matt Shobert along with city administration proposed the fee in order to recoup the costs of the Fire Department having paramedics aboard its fire engines.
This cost was not figured in to property tax assessments paid by residents, and the city is limited in its ability to increase the taxes because of propositions passed by state voters in 1978 and 1996.
"While both Propositions 13 and 218 remain beneficial to long-term Murrieta residents, the impact on the city and the Murrieta Fire Protection District (MFD) has been severe during the latest economic downturn," wrote city of Murrieta Senior Management Analyst Brian Ambrose, in a staff report. (See a full PDF of the agenda item to the right.)
Between 2008-2009 and 2010-2011 fiscal years, the Fire Department had a 24-percent decrease in revenue, the staff report indicated.
The Fire Department's 2012-2013 fiscal year operating budget of $11.41 million showed $10.23 million in revenue and the use of $1.17 million in economic contingency funds. Of revenue, $8.37 million was expected from taxes and $1.52 million from assessments.
A $700,000 budget gap was predicted.
The paramedic subscription program is expected to bring in $350,000 to $400,000 per year at full capacity.
Mayor Doug McAllister called the fee a "bridge."
"I see the EMS fee at best as a bridge to a real solution," McAllister said, noting that Murrieta becoming a charter city would solve some of the structural problems faced, such as the paramedic funding.
Murrieta was incorporated as a general law city; becoming a charter city would call for a vote from the people.
Under certain home rule provisions in California's state constitution, voters can exercise a greater degree of local control than provided by the California Legislature, according to the League of California Cities.
"Becoming a charter city allows voters to determine how their city government is organized and, with respect to municipal affairs, enact legislation different than that adopted by the state," the website states.
"In this case it would give us a bit of an opportunity for a bit of a redo," McAllister said.
In the meantime, the Murrieta Firefighters Association is ready to step up to help close the funding gap, said Association President Dean Hale, a Murrieta firefighter/paramedic.
"(We have) sat down and talked about it and decided...we are willing to take that step if that is what is needed," Hale told city council members.
Some members of the public who spoke agreed with the fee, while others thought there must be other avenues to take.
Murrieta resident Scott Bailey is a fire captain in another city and supports paying the fee to keep services.
"In the city I work for people suffer every day because we don't have firefighter/paramedics," Bailey said.
Resident Adam Huber questioned transfers from the fire fund to the city's general fund.
"We pay a line item on our tax, but recently I know the money has been moved from Fire Department to city hall...this starts a process of funding fire last which other cities have done," Huber said. "Basically any way you look at this, $48 a year is a tax."
City Manager Rick Dudley said those transfers—listed as $300,450 this year—were for network technology services and were charged to all special districts within the city.
The ordinance must still undergo a second reading, which could come before the city council again by early August, according to City Attorney Leslie Devaney.
Upon approving the first reading of the ordinance Tuesday, Murrieta city council triggered a competitive bid process for a third-party consultant to market and administer the paramedic subscription program.
The consultant would be paid by revenue generated from the program and would not be funded by the department's operational budget, according to the staff report.
Residents on Medical or Medicaid and low-income earners will be charged $2 per month for the optional subscription, while businesses will be charged on a sliding scale based on their number of employees. The fee will not cover visitors to the respective business.
Residents not enrolled in the program will be permitted to deny services from Fire Department paramedics until the county's contracted ambulance provider arrives.
A sunset clause allows for reduction in subscription rates by 50 percent, should property taxes return to 2008-2009 levels.
Shobert said if action such as the paramedic fee was not taken to recoup some of the Fire Department costs, it could lead to a reduction in services and possibly the closure of a fire station within two and a half years.
The department currently has a hiring freeze on six administrative positions, and firefighters in 2011 agreed to a 5-percent pay cut.
"It really is the most mainstream option, it is something we should have implemented several years ago when they put paramedics on our engines," said Shobert, noting several other California cities charge a paramedic fee.
These include Anaheim, Burbank, Corona, Fullerton, San Clemente, Santa Ana and Davis, among others, according to Shobert.
"Fire district revenue was never meant to cover cost of EMS," Shobert said.
Councilman Rick Gibbs said all other options had been scrutinized and exhausted.
"Given the facts, approving the recommendation of our fire chief is really not a tough call," Gibbs said. "We talk about quality of life in Murrieta—health and safety are part of quality of life in Murrieta."