The Los Angeles County Fire Department had hoped to get approval Tuesday for a $1.22 increase in the annual tax that homeowners pay for fire services, but the Board of Supervisors demanded more information about the department's fiscal woes before taking any action.
Supervisor Don Knabe grilled fire Chief Daryl Osby, expressing concern about the department's operating deficit for the coming year.
"You're asking for an increase,'' Knabe said of the 2 percent bump. "It's not one that should be taken lightly.''
Osby said the department's expenses were continuing to rise while revenues -- which come primarily from property taxes -- were just beginning to trend up after years in decline.
The department has two new fire station projects planned -- in and Santa Clarita -- that cannot be put off any longer, Osby said, adding the department has continued to hold off on millions of dollars more in infrastructure spending.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky supported the department's request.
"The amount of money we're talking about here to the average taxpayer is so insignificant compared to what they pay on their health insurance every month, every year,'' Yaroslavsky said of the special fire assessment. "(It's) five dollars a month to have a paramedic respond within three or four minutes ... almost no matter where you live.''
The discussion served to highlight the department's structural deficit, which predates Osby and has required spending down reserves to close an operating gap.
"It's not sustainable,'' Osby told the board. One problem is the rising cost of employee benefits. Osby said last year's increases in medical, retirement and workers' compensation benefits were more than double the increase in property tax revenues over the same period.
The proposed tax increase would not go very far in fixing that problem. County CEO William Fujioka said he expected it to bring in an additional $1.5 million or so against a $43 million operating shortfall. Fujioka and Osby are working together on other solutions and updating the department's strategic financial plan.
In the meantime, "We're just trying to get every dollar that we can,'' Osby said.
Ultimately, the board asked the fire chief to return with a more detailed report on the department's financial standing and postponed a vote on the tax increase.
"Before you can convince the public, you've got to convince us,'' Supervisor Gloria Molina said.