0920 RB Fire

Firefighters with Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Torrance and Los Angeles County Fire Departments work a two-alarm house fire in Redondo Beach, Friday, Sept. 14. (Nathaniel Percy, Daily Breeze/SCNG)

With its analysis not yet fully complete, the Redondo Beach City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to not pursue a feasibility study for merging its Fire Department with Los Angeles County.

The vote effectively puts to rest, at least for now, the idea of joining the L.A. County Fire Department. Councilmember John Gran, who represents the northernmost district in the city, accounted for the swing vote.

Gran said it wasn’t that he changed his mind, but that he received more information.

“I’ve done everything we can to find the savings and they are just not there,” Gran said Tuesday.

Mayor Bill Brand, who does not have a vote, said he favored going forward with the study if it meant the decision could lead to cost savings.

“I won’t be going to the residents to ask for more taxes if we don’t turn over every rock,” Brand said.

Councilmember Nils Nehrenheim called Gran’s move “politicking with public safety.”

“I can go through many spots where it (the financial report) is flat out wrong,” Nehrenheim said. “When it comes to budget transparency, Redondo is one of the worst.”

Redondo Beach began thinking about merging its Fire Department with Los Angeles County more than a year ago. Increased call volumes combined with staffing levels that have virtually not changed for decades has meant that Redondo Beach firefighters are often pushed to the limits, according to union president Greg Allen and others.

The conversation got more serious this year when in February the county delivered a draft feasibility study for $30,000, and in April, the council voted 3-2 — this time with Gran in favor — to authorize $24,000 for further study.

Before the council on Tuesday was an item to authorize a reimbursement agreement with the county to conduct that $24,000 study. The item was listed on the council’s consent agenda, usually reserved for routine matters, and was pulled during the meeting for a separate vote.

Gran said despite the unfinished nature of the study, he had sufficient information to decide whether he supported merging with the county — and his decision was “no.”

“What we ended up doing is looking at costs that are going to remain,” Gran said. “I’m sorry to say it doesn’t make the case.”

Exactly what are those costs has been subject to debate and was intended to be cleared up by the study.

In the draft study issued in February, county officials found Redondo Beach could save up to $7 million per year by merging. Those savings were derived in part by eliminating a unit at north Redondo station that would be unnecessary because of availability of units at nearby stations in Lawndale and Hawthorne. The figure also did not account for CalPERS liabilities.

Fire Chief Robert Metzger presented conflicting data with his own analysis of the numbers in April when he identified roughly $6.1 million out of the Fire Department’s $22.1 million 2018-19 budget that it would have still needed to pay for even after a contract with the county was enacted. That number was eventually whittled down to $5.8 million in a subsequent report to the city’s Budget and Finance Commission in July. But there may be further inaccuracies, according to at least one of the commission’s members and fire union leadership.

Based on a city staff report issued at Tuesday’s meeting, the city would reportedly spend $51 million more over 10 years if it enacted a secondary option that maintains the current staffing level.

Allen, who heads the Redondo Beach Firefighters Association, called foul on the calculation.

“It’s like a black box of money or a shell game,” Allen said.

Roughly 75% of the union’s 58 members favor the idea, Allen said. Under the county’s primary option, which eliminates the north Redondo unit, the city could save about $14 million over 10 years even under the department’s revised calculations, according to Allen.

Proponents of the shift say joining L.A. County is about more than money. They say it’s about public safety.

Merging with L.A. County would mean that Redondo Beach residents could be served by 17 fire stations and roughly 60 firefighters within a 5-mile radius in nearby cities that also contract with the county. Those first responders would be ready to react to emergencies on what’s known as a “first-in” basis, meaning they are all connected by the same dispatch system.

As it stands now, Redondo Beach has mutual aid agreements with nearby cities and the county as a last resort when they are at their busiest. But the process of mobilizing those units is done over the phone and often takes longer, Allen said. The difference measured in minutes and seconds can be a matter of life or death, he said.

Allen pointed to Hermosa Beach where a fire engulfed a home in construction on the Strand in June. Because Hermosa is now part of L.A. County Fire, multiple fire engines were able to respond to the fire especially fast. Allen said if Hermosa had been left to fend with a single engine and mutual aid response, the fire could have spread to other structures.

“By the time we got there,” Allen said, “the county had more guys on that fire than we could have drawn from all the South Bay cities.”

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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