SAN BERNARDINO (CN) – The bankrupt California city of San Bernardino is not prohibited from outsourcing its firefighting services, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright affirmed a decision by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court that neither the city’s charter nor state law prohibits San Bernardino from outsourcing firefighter services.
San Bernardino declared bankruptcy in 2012 with a $45 million deficit. It has been trying to fight its way out of bankruptcy ever since. As part of its plan to balance its budget, it outsourced trash collection and is trying to have San Bernardino County take over the fire department.
After filing for bankruptcy, the city unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a modification to its collective bargaining agreement with the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters union. When negotiations failed, the bankruptcy court granted the city’s motion to set aside the agreement.
The city received proposals in April from San Bernardino County and the private Centerra Group, prompting the union to file an adversary proceeding seeking a judicial declaration that the city’s charter and state law prohibit the outsourcing of such services.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury dismissed the claim in July after determining that no such prohibition exists.
In a 19-page opinion released Tuesday, Wright affirmed Jury’s decision, finding that language in the city charter setting out how a fire department would be run does not prevent the city from outsourcing firefighting services.
The charter “simply empowers the city to establish a fire department; it does not require the city to create a fire department, let alone a fire department staffed by city employees,” Wright found.
Although Jury had determined that the city could comply with the fire department structure outlined by the charter even if it outsourced, Wright took it a step farther by finding that sections 180 through 186 of the charter “only govern the operation of an internal fire department once created” and “simply do not apply if the city chooses to outsource firefighting services.”
Nor is outsourcing firefighter services to private entities prohibited by state law, Wright found, despite the union’s argument that such services are an issue of statewide concern, not just a municipal affair.
“Fire services are provided by the city largely (if not entirely) for the benefit of its inhabitants, and are paid for entirely by the city in which they operate. While a city’s firefighting services may occasionally impact those outside the city – such as when they assist with firefighting efforts in neighboring cities – this does not overcome the overwhelmingly local nature of the service,” Wright wrote. “It follows, then, that the city’s decision as to the most cost-effective way to provide those services is also itself a municipal affair.”
Attorneys did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment sent after hours on Wednesday.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino on Dec. 18, to help funnel state resources to the city after the Dec. 2 massacre at the Inland Regional Center that killed 14 people and wounded 26.
San Bernardino, pop. 214,000, is on the far eastern edge of the Los Angeles megalopolis.
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