The county’s fire department budget has reached a “critical point,” according to Fire Chief Brian Marshall, who has approached county supervisors with a request for a loan of $14 million.
Marshall made the request at Tuesday’s supervisor’s meeting, claiming last year’s wildfire season and the county fire department’s operations in Kern County and Northern California left the department depleted of funds.
In 2017, the Kern County Fire Department battled multiple local wildfires, including the Erskine Fire in the Lake Isabella area, which killed two people, destroyed 285 structures, and destroyed more than 48,000 acres. In addition, the department also provided support for wildfires in Napa, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties, while also contributing to hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
The fire department is currently waiting for $10 million in reimbursement from the state, but it may not come until after the fiscal year, requiring the newly requested loan in order to avoid a “cash negative” situation for the department that could come as soon as May, according to Marshall.
In response to the request, one county supervisor said he is worried about potential escalations in budgetary discussions.
“Seems last year was a loan of $6 million,” said District 3 Supervisor Mick Gleason. “This year is a loan of $14 million. I think fire seasons are getting longer, more destructive. What do these trends, what does it mean for next year?”
Though both supervisors and Marshall seemed to agree on the importance of making sure all local firefighters were being paid reliably, Marshall said there are many more costs that make the loan necessary.
“We still have to make sure the lights are on at the fire station, air conditioning, fuel for the fire trucks, so it’s much more than that,” Marshall said. “We’re here 24/7, 365, so we can’t just shut the lights off at 5 o’clock and go home. Our firefighters are ready to respond whenever our citizens dial 911, so it’s a lot more than just making payroll.”
The board is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to approve the loan.