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Kern County Fire Department could get expert analysis

FILE -- Kern County fire trucks are seen en route to fight the Range Fire in this file photo from the Kern County Fire Department.

The Kern County's Fire Department could be the focus of an expert audit if the Kern County Board of Supervisors gives the OK next Tuesday.

The county administrative officer said he hopes the review will produce options for savings and better service.

The firefighters union president said his members feel they're being unfairly targeted.

On Friday, CAO Ryan Alsop told Eyewitness News the idea is to get recommendations that'll help the county deal with their current budget gap.

"We've got a $41 million structural deficit countywide, and the fire fund -- this is the general operating fund for fire services here in Kern County -- that is about 25 percent of the problem with the overall structural deficit," Alsop said.

The deficit in the "Fire Fund" now stands at about $9.1 million.

The fire fund, and other county funds, have taken a recent hit because the low value of oil- and gas-producing property in the county means less property-tax revenue. The county's been grappling with the lower funds for several years.

County budget planners have looked for ways to trim spending in the fire department, and Alsop hopes the proposed review will help.

"We hope that the analysis that gets done really gives us a look at how things are going, it gives us some comparison," Alsop said. "How do we compare with other agencies nationwide? in California? Hopefully the upshot is, it gives us a set of recommendations that are implementable."

The proposal is to hire the Center for Public Safety Management to review the fire department. The proposal calls for a look at "organizational structure and culture," review of "best practices," analysis of workload, and recommendations for a "management framework to ensure accountability, increased efficiency and improved performance."

"I view this more as a strategic plan to adopt a plan for the future of the fire department," Kern Fire Chief Brian Marshall told Eyewitness News. "That's what a strategic plan does, you look at how you're doing business today, and how you could do business better in the future."

But, Firefighter Union President Derek Robinson said his members feel they're being singled out unfairly.

"If they focus on our 25 percent (of the budget deficit), why leave the other 75 percent untouched?" he said. "That doesn't make sense."

Robinson also complains the fire department took deep budget cuts last year.

Alsop said the proposed review is a chance to get more insight, saying it will cover operations and finances. And, he said the work will be done by experts.

"This analysis is going to be conducted by current and former firefighters and fire chiefs," he said.

Alsop said those experts will decide exactly what they'll look into, but that could well include overtime. Paying O.T. has been a hot topic for fire department spending.

"This is not about taking away overtime," Alsop said. But, there is a part of the overtime picture he is worried about.

"That is what's over and above what is required under federal law," he said. Alsop said the county could save between $6- and $8 million a year by eliminating that "overtime over payment."

From the union, Derek Robinson said overtime has partly been caused because the fire department hasn't been allowed to hire more firefighters for the last three years. He said the department is now down about 40 positions, and argues the current staffing level, and not being able to hire, has led to more overtime costs.

Asked about the "overtime over payments," Alsop said that's caused by the way overtime is currently defined in the fire department, and that's now being negotiated with the union.

Fire Chief Brian Marshall notes crews don't go home at 5 p.m. like other workers, and their scheduling is complicated. His focus is to make sure there's adequate staff and resources to protect Kern County residents.

"I think there are some questions that we need to ask, how can we serve our citizens better in the future," Marshall said.

Alsop said the budget problems can only really be solved by finding on-going spending reductions. He said solving the fire department budget gap can be a catalyst to find solutions to the overall county budget problems.

"This audit is, at the end of the day, not about finger-pointing, it's not about blaming anybody," Alsop said. "It's simply about gathering additional options for us to consider."

Kern County supervisors will consider and vote on a contract for the audit next Tuesday.

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