David Witt’s two years as Chief of the Kern County Fire Department have proven to be some of the most difficult the department has ever faced.
Hampered by a budget deficit forcing deep cuts, Witt presided over the worst wildfire season in state history, a pandemic that at times required the isolation of 20 firefighters at a time, and the Ridgecrest earthquakes. But as he prepares to hand over the department to new chief Aaron Duncan, Witt considers his job almost done.
“What we planned to do, we accomplished it,” he told reporters on Thursday. “I have the impression that we, with the help of others, bypassed the fire department. You may not see it yet. My employees may not have seen it all yet, but it’s coming.
In the grip of a constant structural deficit that had drained resources from other county departments for years, the fire department was in dire financial straits when Witt took over. Forced to make what he described as “unpopular decisions,” Witt left vacancies to save money by making firefighters work overtime, which is cheaper than hiring extra staff.
Now, however, the county says the deficit has been wiped out in part thanks to a $ 4 million cash injection from the general fund, better-than-expected revenues and federal pandemic aid.
When Witt took office, his department had not saved any money. Now Witt says KCFD got $ 30 million in savings. The ministry is now in a position to reinstate 70 vacant positions last year in order to reduce costs.
“Now it’s time for a new group to take it to a new level,” Witt said. “We’ve built a foundation and it’s time for them to come in and add to this great fire department, the great County of Kern.”
The supervisory board worked quickly to replace Witt. Less than two weeks after Witt publicly announced his retirement, the board had named Duncan as the next leader. The board interviewed six candidates, ultimately landing on one of the four deputy chiefs.
“We looked at all of our options and a table was presented, but we just felt that time was running out and we had some really strong internal candidates,” said Chairman of the Board, Phillip Peters. “When we looked at the experience they had, the qualities they brought to the table, I think it made sense from a board perspective. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the board, but that seemed like the general consensus that going with one of our guys in the department made sense given the constraints we had. “
Duncan is due to take command on July 19, giving him more than two weeks to follow Witt as he learns the ropes of his new position. Allowing time for a smooth transition to a new boss was seen as the key to quickly appointing Witt’s replacement. Besides Witt, three members of the general staff also announced their retirement.
But all of the “unpopular decisions” have yet to be made, creating challenges for the new leader.
The county is still negotiating new contracts with nine cities that are contracting KCFD for fire services. Currently, contracts allow cities to pay less for services than it costs for those services to be provided.
Supervisors approved a plan to increase the amount cities must pay to continue using the fire department. Reaching new deals will be key to preventing the department from developing another deficit.
“We’re stable, but we’re by no means ahead of the game at the moment,” COO Ryan Alsop wrote in an email.
He added that many other county priorities, such as hiring more assistants and meeting firefighters’ equipment needs, remained to be addressed.
“Maintaining the fiscal position we find ourselves in over the next fiscal year and being able to meet many of the critical needs of this county in the future is entirely dependent on the continued and consistent growth of the sources of crucial revenues for the county, ”he continued,“ including the strength of our oil and gas sectors, controlled spending, stable pension costs and the success of the important work we need to do over the next few years. to increase the revenues that fund all of our important public safety and quality of life services. “