A Superior Court judge today denied a request that would have forced Riverside County to continue providing fire services in the City of Canyon Lake, even after the current contract for those services expires tonight (June 30) at midnight.
The ruling from San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge John Pacheco said, “The court, in balancing the equities, finds that it would be unjust to impose the City’s request for a Restraining Order on the County.” The city had requested a restraining order to prevent Riverside County from vacating the fire station inside the city limits tonight at midnight and discontinuing fire service.
The ruling comes a year after Canyon Lake notified Riverside County it did not intend to renew the current fire contract. It also comes approximately two months after Riverside County offered the city a one-year deal that would meet the city’s state-mandated requirement to provide fire services in Canyon Lake.
Today, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a new one-year contract to provide fire services and emergency medical services in the City of Canyon Lake starting tomorrow (July 1). The new contract provides an opportunity for the city to protect residents, but city officials have rebuffed attempts to reach accord on the new agreement. The City Council would have to approve the contract before it can take effect, or find another way to provide emergency services.
The city has not paid the county on those costs for 18 months and owes approximately $1.9 million for services the county already has provided.
“We approved this contract today solely out of concern for the residents ” Supervisor John J. Benoit said. “I believe it is very generous because I don’t know how many companies or agencies would want to provide services to a customer who has not paid its bill in a year-and-a-half.”
The costs are the subject of litigation between the city and the county.
The county has explained to the city that contract costs cannot be reduced for several reasons:
* State law requires that the county recover 100 percent of its actual costs on such contracts (though the city still wants to pay less).
* The county does not control the salaries of firefighters, who are state employees whose salaries are set by the State of California. In fact, the county assumes the same potential financial liability for salary increases when it contracts with the state to provide fire service in the county unincorporated area.
* County policy requires a minimum of three firefighting staff on each engine to ensure the safety of residents and firefighters. The county has said it will not reduce that minimum service level, as the city has requested, and compromise safety. The city may establish a department of its own with lower standards and costs, if it desires.
Canyon Lake is among 21 cities and agencies that contract with the county for fire and EMS services as part of a regional fire system. Despite city complaints about costs, other agencies in the regional system already respond to 60 percent of the calls within the city limits and city crews only respond outside Canyon Lake in less than 5 percent of all city responses.
Canyon Lake recently asked the county what would happen if there is no contract and the city requested assistance. Such requests can be made but are not a way for the city to replicate contract fire services, in the absence of a contract. City officials were told they should not rely on, or expect, a response from the countywide Regional Cooperative Fire Protection System in any individual case.
Requests will be evaluated individually when received and if resources are available among the system’s continuing partners, a response will be considered. Simply requesting assistance does not assure that the request can or will be accommodated, the city was told, and no expectation regarding response time should be assumed.