FULLERTON, Calif. – The City of Fullerton is not alone when it comes to struggling to maintain balanced budgets and remaining competitive in employee benefits and pay. This is an issue many cities in Orange County and across the country are dealing with.
On top of this fiscal issue, the city has also been dealing with firefighters leaving the Fullerton Fire Department after they receive training and earn enough years of experience.
“Once we saw those numbers go in the handfuls of five, six, and seven firefighters to other agencies, we knew we were dealing with a crisis,” said Captain Dan Lancaster, from the Fullerton Fire Department,
Captain Lancaster joined the fire department almost 15 years ago. He recalls being hooked as a kid and going on a couple ride-alongs with family friends who were firefighters in the Los Angeles area.
“Just like any other new firefighter, you’re excited. You’re pumped to get the opportunity to prove yourself,” said Lancaster.
In the last 15 years, Lancaster has worked his way up the ranks, become President of the Fullerton Firefighters Association and routinely volunteers to train rookies in four-week programs held at the department.
While he’s happy to see new recruits join the department, seeing trained and experienced firefighters leave Fullerton for neighboring agencies like Anaheim, Huntington Beach and the Orange County Fire Authority concerns him. Those other agencies pay more and have better benefit packages than what Fullerton can offer them.
“We’re losing so many high-quality and highly trained people that I think with educating our city leaders about why our job matters can help them make big decisions to help rectify the situation. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to paying benefits. Our guys are strictly leaving for pay, benefits and overall job security,” said Lancaster.
He says the department has trained 38 firefighters since 2016 and only 17 from that batch have remained on the team. There are currently 61 personnel in the department. They need to have 72 to have a full staff.
Despite the resignations from the department, Lancaster says he and most of the firefighters are committed to the city and is hoping to collaborate with city leaders to find a way to retain employees.
Fullerton City Manager Ken Domer is in charge of creating and balancing the city’s budget among his other responsibilities.
“I always say, if I have a dollar, I can only spend a dollar. Of spending that dollar, I’m also trying to put a couple more cents into the rainy-day fund,” said Domer, who was appointed City Manager by the city council in 2017 after serving the City of Huntington Beach as the Assistant City Manager.
Domer says his job requires making sure that the city’s budget remains fiscally sustainable despite the city not having a large amount of revenue coming in compared to more touristy cities in Orange County.
“As comparison, Anaheim has $160 million just in transit occupancy tax. That’s your hotel tax. We have about $3.1 million. So there’s only so much I can do with the money that’s coming in here. The goal is to try and increase that through increased economic development, being as efficient and effective as possible and just planning for the long-term,” said Domer.
The City Manager says he and the city council are also concerned by the number of firefighters leaving the department, but says he understands that people will do what they need to do to survive and take care of their families since Orange County is an expensive place to live.
Domer says the city is also dealing with a large percentage of the general fund going towards pensions for police officers and firefighters. The city currently spends $19 million dollars from the general fund on pensions.
“We have a $97 million-dollar general fund budget for next year and 20 percent or so of our budget is what we’re spending on just employee pensions,” said Domer.
Both Lancaster and Domer agree that the city has the potential to bring in more revenue, but how it’ll be done and how long it’ll take is up for a discussion. Meanwhile, the fire department is close to the end of a four-week academy for its new recruits. Lancaster says the veteran firefighters on the team are committed to training the new employees to the Fullerton standard despite not knowing what the future holds for them.
“We can make the station life as great as possible, and somehow it comes down to finances. That’s out of my scope. It’s frustrating to me that we’re losing a lot of great talents to other departments,” said Jamie Newton, Deputy Chief of Operations for Fullerton and Brea Fire Departments.
The City Manager says he’s asking city employees to remain patient and to weather the financial storm with the city. He’s hopeful he can continue to balance the budget and find ways to increase the general fund while protecting employee pensions.
With all that’s gone on, the city stresses that it has reorganized the fire department to ensure that response times to emergency calls are not disrupted.