The Santa Barbara County Fire Department is facing a structural deficit and is not meeting goal response times, according to a report presented Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors by an outside consulting firm.
Stewart Gary of Citygate Associates outlined some of the challenges the department is facing within the larger framework of the county’s financial restraints.
County Fire responded to more than 11,000 calls last year, 65 percent of which were emergency medical calls, and the goal response time is six minutes — spanning from a caller reaching dispatch to crews arriving on the scene. But the study found that the department reached that goal only 63 percent of the time.
Currently, the actual time from dispatch to arrival is nearly 10 minutes for most calls, “too long for an urbanized area,” Gary said.
He recommended that response times be tied to population clusters and, as funding permits, that the county increase staffing per station.
Communities aren’t forced to provide fire service to their residents, but if they do, they must meet minimum standards.
“The challenge is matching that need [for fire service] with the ability to pay,” Gary said.
Pre-Proposition 13 tax rates won’t support the current or desired level of services, he said, and the department has a structural deficit that will continue to grow as costs increase. The department would need $4 million per year over the next three years just to maintain current levels of service.
How to pay for that increase is likely to be on the minds of county supervisors when budget talks begin this summer. An oil production tax discussed Tuesday would be one approach, but it failed to garner enough support from the board to go before voters.
Santa Barbara County also pays a lower portion of its property taxes to fire services than other communities, according to Gary.
The supervisors could discuss allotting more of that money to fire services, without increasing the amount of property taxes people pay.
County CEO Chandra Wallar said the Fire Department does a good job with the resources that are available, but to keep “boots on the ground,” she said, support staff would have to be cut.
Aging fire stations and no mechanism for capital improvements are also issues, she said, adding that the county can no longer just look at cost-cutting strategies, but to revenues as well.
“We’ve got to decide if we want to protect our citizens” or lower services, she said.
Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the department has cut response times in dispatch significantly, but “we still have more work to do.”
He will report back to county supervisors in 60 days with a more detailed report. Wallar was also asked to return with more information about reallocating a greater portion of property taxes to the department.