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South Placer Fire has achieved balanced budget

Another View
By: Craig Powell, South Placer Fire Protection District board
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I appreciate the opportunity to provide an update on the South Placer Fire Protection District. The district provides emergency medical services and fire protection to the citizens of Granite Bay and the outlying area. Like almost every public agency in California, the economic recession has created some enormous challenges. In the past four years, South Placer has lost almost $900,000 in revenue (or 14 percent of its total budget) as a result of reduced property taxes. In relative terms, the district’s fiscal crisis was greater than the state of California; the state’s revenue reduction amounted to 13 percent of its budget over the same period.

As we sit today, the district’s fortunes are very different from those of the state (or the federal) government. South Placer is in the midst of its second year in a row with a balanced budget. In addition, the district is once again contributing to its capital reserve accounts. Finally, the board has begun setting aside funds to address the long-term liability associated with retiree health care costs. While there is still much to do (including 100 percent funding of the health care liability), the district’s leadership has accomplished its primary objective — balancing the budget by reducing costs to offset revenue reductions while maintaining an exemplary record of service/performance.

This has not been an easy task. The Great Recession has created a new set of demands for elected officials and the stakeholders they serve. The question is not merely how to preserve the institutions we’ve built, but how do we reshape them? With that in mind, I think it is important to point out two of the most important lessons we have learned in the past four years:

1. Explore every option: In no particular order, we looked at raising taxes/fees, across the board wage reductions, spending additional capital reserves, and closing down a fire station as potential solutions. It is interesting to note that on several occasions, we were criticized by at least one constituency (taxpayers, district management, and/or the collective bargaining groups) for our failure to adopt a specific course of action and/or move faster. Here is the reality — our current course of action (a combination of spending cuts, capital expenditure reductions, shifting retirement benefit payments to employees, down staffing, retirement/attrition, and the elimination of four administrative staff positions) has resulted in a more efficient organization and a balanced budget. By consciously avoiding ideological constraints, we were able to put together a comprehensive solution absent of a clear cut winner or loser in less than three years. We also avoided laying off any personnel.

2. Think differently: It seems straightforward, but unprecedented conditions dictate a unique approach. Presently, the South Placer Fire Protection District is approaching old problems in a completely new fashion. Some of the changes include: outsourcing some functions in lieu of hiring more personnel, empowering line staff to take on additional administrative responsibility, continuously testing/refining new deployment strategies to ensure that service levels are maintained/improved, and working together with other local agencies to create synergies.

Thriving organizations challenge convention and adapt quickly. Sadly, this is truly unique thinking in government. I am so proud of the team at South Placer. In response to a collective concern about communication, two separate initiatives have been implemented within the last 90 days (an electronic newsletter to improve internal communication and enhanced social media efforts via Facebook to improve community outreach). It is important to note that both projects are “budget neutral.”

Finally, while we have made tremendous progress, I believe the biggest challenges are still to come. Until big government is willing to adapt to the realities of the world and reinvent itself, local agencies will continually be subjected to the unintended consequences of what occurs at the state and federal level. The work of the brave men and women of the South Placer Fire Protection District is a model for all public agencies. Please join me in thanking them for their work.

Craig Powell is the president/director of the South Placer Fire Protection District board.