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Task Force Asks Orinda City Council To Take Action On Fire District Services

The fire chief and mayor say the issues have been discussed before and are being dealt with

Moraga-Orinda Fire District
Moraga-Orinda Fire District
A task force of Orinda residents is once again asking the City Council to take action against what the group perceives are inequities between what Orinda pays and what it receives in services from the Moraga-Orinda Fire District.

In a letter to the council, members of the Orinda Emergency Services Task Force say it's time to demand the fire district add services to the Orinda area and ask Moraga residents to pay more.

"Someone needs to stand up for Orinda’s taxpayers’ best interests and its residents’ safety," the letter states.

The letter adds that since the task force issued its last report, the fire district has hired a new chief and administrative services director. In addition, the majority of the district board has been replaced with new members.

The task force notes the district has also announced that it's depleted its general reserve fund and reduced the deficit in this year's budget from $1 million to $400,000.

One way the district did that was reducing its minimum daily staffing from 19 to 17 firefighters. The task force said both the positions cut came from Orinda stations.

In addition, district officials announced its pension liability had grown from $24 million to $45 million, the letter states.

Task force members say Orinda taxpayers are "subsiding service in Moraga to the tune of $2 million per year."

In a new report, the task force recommends that Moraga residents be asked to pay more for fire protection services.

In addition, task force members ask that extra service be provided to the Orinda Downs and Sleepy Hollow neighborhoods, which the report states have response times in excess of six minutes.

The task force also asks a vegetation fuel reduction plan be introduced in north Orinda and more than two dozen substandard fire hydrants in the city be upgraded.

Moraga-Orinda Fire District Chief Stephen Healy said he agrees with some areas of the report.

He said there is a need for more fire prevention and the district is working on that. He also said the personnel expenses mentioned in the report are the district's main challenge right now.

Healy said he respects the work of the task force and commends them for bringing issues to the community's attention.

However, he said he doesn't think there is a disparity between service and what Orinda and Moraga residents pay.

"The district fundamentally disagrees with that," Healy said.

He added Orinda still has nine firefighters and a battalion chief assigned to it while Moraga has eight firefighters.

He said the reduction in staff has so far had only a minor impact on service in both communities.

In addition, Orinda has three ambulances stationed in its city while Moraga has one.

He added both Orinda Mayor Sue Severson and Councilwoman Victoria Smith are liaisons to the fire district and are in constant communication.

Severson said the issues in the report has been discussed in years past.

"This is not a new suggestion. This has been a concern of the task force for awhile," said Severson.

She commended the task force for its diligent work, but she noted that trying to quantify service can be a tricky subject.

"There are different ways to look at that," she said.

She said the council at any time can bring up the matter of Orinda's payments to the fire district, but she feels the liaison committee set up now does an adequate job of communicating concerns.

Steve Cohn January 17, 2014 at 02:02 PM
Responding to a couple of comments made by Chief Healy and Mayor Severson. First, the Task Force has nothing but the highest regard for the Chief and respect for the difficult job he has stepped up to. However, we must remind him that he serves all residents of the MOFD service area: the 17,600 in Orinda and about 17,000 in Moraga and Canyon. Everyone wants the best service for their tax dollar but Orinda taxpayers are not getting it. He states that Orinda is served by nine firefighters and a Battalion Chief but he knows that the Battalion and Division Chiefs are district administrators, regardless of where their office is located. Table III-1 of the original Task Force report (www.OrindaTaskForce.org) displays district operations records which show that only 44% of the incidents which Battalion Chiefs respond to are within Orinda. Therefore, with Orinda taxpayers paying $11.8 million for nine firefighters while Moraga taxpayers are only paying $6.7 million for eight firefighters, the Task Force cannot not believe that Chief Healy, who should be neutral on this subject, can state that each town is paying its own fair share of MOFD’s operating expenses. The Mayor’s claim that this issue has been discussed in the past is a fallacy. It has never been discussed. In the first round of Tri-Agency meetings MOFD claimed there was no funding inequity but there was no discussion despite citizen attempts. In the second round of Tri-Agency meetings where the subject came up, the “discussion” was so protracted that Orinda’s representative, Amy Worth, summed up the entire set of meetings with a three minute verbal report to the Council but suggested to the Council that they form their own task force. The other four Council members would not even call a vote on the suggestion, saying MOFD (and Orinda’s safety) was outside their “purview”. All government parties have attempted to sweep this issue, which was a key factor for Orindans to form MOFD in the first place, under the rug. And Orinda residents’’ safety is paying the price.
Carol Penskar January 17, 2014 at 03:16 PM
The "task force" is still trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as the iceberg looms ever larger. And the Board and the Task Force were shocked! shocked! ; rebuked then fired the auditor for pointing out that the current path is unsustainable. Shoot the messenger! Detroit/Vallejo/Stockton/San Bernadino anyone?
Tim January 17, 2014 at 03:34 PM
Point #1 - I am a Moraga resident and I will never vote for an additional tax to fund MOFD. Point #2 - my guess is that all the Orinda task force members live in Orinda Downs or Sleepy Shallow. Point #3 - Moraga should pay less because we have less emergency vehicles and less fire stations (data can be sliced and diced many ways to tell a number of stories)
Steve Cohn January 17, 2014 at 03:59 PM
@Tim Point #1 - Too late: Moraga voters, knowing that their ad valorem tax was not sufficient to support the service they desired, voted for a parcel tax 20 years ago which is five times what is currently being charged. Point #2 - Only 2 out of 8 Task Force members live in Orinda Downs or Sleepy Hollow Point #3 - Agreed. You have 8 out of 17 firefighters (this is where 95% of the cost goes; stations are cheap). That means you should pay 47% of the total. You are currently paying 36% of the total. To bring you up to 47% and Orinda down to 53% would mean you need to pay $2mm more while Orinda pays $2mm less (or gets $2mm more service which is what the Task Force suggests).
Steve Cohn January 17, 2014 at 04:11 PM
@ Carol: The Task Force is multi-tasking. Rearranging the deck chairs while keeping the boat afloat. MOFD cannot survive unless it cuts its expenses. The only place to do that is employment costs. Fewer employees, less cost per employee or a combination of the two. It does have the option of raising taxes in Moraga but the Task Force does not suggest that it do so as a means just to pay the bills. MOFD already spends more per capita on emergency services than anywhere else we know of. They do not have a revenue problem; they have an expense problem. As for rearranging deck chairs. If that is what you want to call giving Orinda residents the service that they are already paying for, fine. Call it that. We are calling on our representatives both in MOFD and on the Orinda Council to do some rearranging for the sake of our safety. As for sticking up for the auditors - they screwed up and deserved what they got. The Board and former staff should have realized this a long time ago but it is never too late to move forward. There is still not a realistic balance sheet out there showing what MOFD's real assets and liabilities are. GASB has failed everyone.
Janet Maiorana January 17, 2014 at 04:25 PM
Tim #1. Prior to MOFD, Moraga voted a tax to cover support services. As soon as Orinda came on board with the formation of MOFD, Moraga NEVER USED this tax. Orindans were told the newer Moraga community did not have infrastructure needs. However, the FIRST new station to be built was in Moraga. Since MOFD inception, Orinda habeen ove and been short changed. It took 10 yrs to get a 24/7 dedicated ambulance in Orinda to match the 24/7 ambulance Moraga always had. #2. It does not matter who lives where. The only issue is Orindans are overpaying for inadequate response times. #3. This huge descrepancy in cost of service for Orinda will only increase since Orinda assessed valuation grows more annually than Moraga. Orinda service will continue to decrease, and our costs will continue to grow and out strip Moraga. Since 2002 it has been obvious to me Moraga will never give up their Orinda golden goose. Therefore my wish has always been that Orinda would detach and form an Orinda Fire District.
Carol Penskar January 18, 2014 at 11:53 PM
Steve; was the final opinion issued by Cropper the qualified one in their draft report? Will the new cut rate auditor be honest and also issue a qualified opinion? Or will the Board have successfully bought the opinion it seeks? And what about the report from Bartel Associates? That "80 per cent of the district's pension obligation is committed to retirees ... one of they highest ratios...ever seen when it comes to pension benefits." Cutting current staff doesn't fix that. Bankruptcy is the only way to get out of the impossible retiree overhang. Dissolving the MOFD, as Janet proposes, and foisting the full Orinda share of MOFD retiree burden directly onto Orinda taxpayers, as Janet keeps proposing, is lunacy. It would eventually suck up every tax dollar out there: for police, for parks, for roads. Does that seem like a good idea?
Steve Cohn January 19, 2014 at 02:18 PM
Carol – The final audit on the MOFD web site looks like the same thing as was presented at the 10/29/2013 Board meeting. You are suggesting a new auditor will be paid to gloss over any bad news even more than Cropper did? I am as pessimistic as they come (except for you and a couple of others) but I don’t see it with the new members of the Board and the new staff. Plus, I just don’t see anyone able to be worse. While Cropper mostly followed GASB guidelines (which allowed MOFD to declare $10mm in net assets when, in fact, they had about $100mm in net liabilities), they made no comment about this discrepancy to the Board or community. In addition they missed the new GASB guideline issued two years ago which called for $2mm of their reserves to be considered restricted funds. The reason for this restriction is that the day after the books close each year MOFD has a $2 million bond payment due, therefore they really have $2 million less than it looks. The staff should have known about this and the seasoned board members should have known this but if the audit had correctly reported that MOFD only had $1.5 million in reserves instead of $3.5 million, maybe would not have planned on an $800,000 deficit which ended up being $1.3 million, wiping out the reserves. No one is shooting a messenger (Gloriann Sasser was the messenger). They are terminating Cropper for incompetence and if Casey and Bradley had not voluntarily exited, they should have been up for consideration also.
Steve Cohn January 19, 2014 at 02:19 PM
Moving forward, MOFD just about has a balanced budget of $20 million this year if you exclude the purchase of land for a new station (which could be resold if need be and is the exchange of one asset (cash) for another (real estate), not an expense). While they have $90 million in debts, they have plenty of money to pay them off IF they can control their other expenses. They do this by reducing staff and reducing total compensation per staff; not by declaring bankruptcy and stiffing their creditors (mostly their former employees). This debt is, effectively, the debt of Orinda’s and Moraga’s taxpayers. I don’t think it is efficient for Orinda and Moraga to have their own separate emergency service departments (they don’t have many fires so I don’t like the term “fire” departments); and I know Orinda and Moraga would fight like heck to keep MOFD’s debt off their books (even though they have turned a blind eye to protect their residents’ best interests while MOFD was accruing that debt on the taxpayers’ behalf); but this is not “foisting” the debt on Orinda’s (and Moraga’s) taxpayers, it is already their debt. The real problem is that Orinda taxpayers are paying 2/3 the bill while only receiving half of the service and Janet Maiorana is correct that by having our own department, that problem would go away.
Janet Maiorana January 20, 2014 at 04:05 PM
Carol, Have read your articles expressing belief MOFD will go into bankruptcy. Considering Orinda's Ad Valorem tax, do you think MOFD would ever go into bankruptcy? Are you certain bankruptcy would dismiss Orinda citizen responsibility for unfunded liabilities? After watching MOFD operations since inception of the District in 1997 it is my belief Orinda will continue to pay some 66% PLUS of MOFD cost compared to Moraga only paying 1/3 of MOFD. This over payment will increase annually just as it has increased annually since 1997. How would detachment stop this Ad Valorem tax inequity? Detachment would allow Orinda to pay their fair share according to number of Orinda fire fighters. Orinda has 53% of on line firemen while Moraga has 47%. Therefore, detachment would allow Orinda to pay 53% of existing unfunded liabilities, and our ever increasing inequity would cease. If we do not detach, Orinda continues to pay 66% or the current accurate percentage and figures. The inequity for Orinda exists as long as MOFD exists. MOFD does to Orinda exactly what Con Fire did to Orinda before Orinda City Council spear headed detachment from Con Fire. Carol, I am sorry you think I am a lunatic. I admit it has been difficult to watch this Orinda, Moraga inequity grow and increase since 1997. Do you have a solution to stop this inequity?

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