Santa Paula has long been known for its quaintness, serving a diverse community, from migrant workers and small business owners to doctors and teachers. It has special historical significance, from being home to some of the county’s founding fathers to longtime establishments such as the Glen Tavern Inn and a small airport where Steve McQueen used to keep some of his most prized possessions. But with the 2014 and 2016 elections and ensuing pursuits since then, something seems awry.
A political action committee representing Santa Paula’s firefighting union has been especially busy with the recent elections. As reported by the VC Star, in 2014 and 2016, the PAC spent $15,400 total on five candidates who are all now on the City Council. None of the losing candidates received donations from the PAC. Further, the voters last year supported Measure M, a 1 cent sales-tax increase over 20 years that would generate “approximately $2.1 million annually, to improve police and fire services with the remainder devoted to street repair, youth programs and the provision of other city services.” While we did not endorse this measure, a resident in favor of the measure was quick to point out that the money would be distributed fairly. Our concern, that police and fire were the priority, as stated in the actual language of the measure. The increase went into effect April 1.
Clearly, in Santa Paula, firefighters are highly regarded and have certain influence. And this is not unusual, as most people value the lifesaving work of these public servants. But there is something unsettling unfolding in the “Citrus Capital of the World”: The city is currently reviewing whether to disband the city’s fire department and instead hire the county to provide services. The costs, however, seem exponentially high for the services the city is already receiving.
First, the county would allocate roughly 80 percent of the city’s property tax revenues for county fire services. Second, according to a consultant hired to study the costs of moving such services to the county, Santa Paula residents would pay an additional $218,000 annually. For this, the city’s 17 sworn fire department employees would most likely be hired by the county, see a significant increase in pay to match other county firefighters, have access to better equipment, reduce the city’s workers’ compensation and add services for residents.
While the City Council recently hired consultants to further study the cost/benefit analysis of the move, during public meetings, members of the fire department were pushing to move the switch forward as city residents urged lawmakers to slow the process down. We agree with the residents.
According to http://transparentcalifornia.com, in 2014, Santa Paula firefighters, captains and engineers brought home in total pay and benefits between $50,000 and $130,000 a year — not including the chief’s pay. The median household income in Santa Paula hovers right around $53,000, with income per capita at $20,000. It doesn’t seem fair that the city’s firefighters should continue to push this move that seems to put a heavy financial burden on its residents without more information that shows clearly how the city will benefit. Also, the sense of urgency seems odd without first seeing how Measure T could better improve the city’s fire department.
The real issue at hand, however, is the notion that Santa Paula residents can now hand off the responsibility of running their city to elected officials without any further follow-up. Now is the time for the residents to get involved and be engaged before they are all on the hook for decisions made by the City Council members who were all supported by those who stand to benefit the most.