By Mike Allen
Photo: San Miguel Fire & Rescue
April 13, 2017 (Spring Valley) -- The San Miguel Fire District continues to take the necessary steps to go back to being a stand-alone agency and cut the cord from Cal Fire, which currently provides its fire protection services.
At its April 12 meeting, the district’s board approved a seven-year contract for dispatching services with a regional provider, amended its current fiscal year budget by about $1 million (mostly for added costs connected to the transition), and adopted a new logo to reflect the district changes.
San Miguel’s new fire chief and board chair both say the transition that is set to officially happen July 12 is on track and moving smoothly.
“We’re at least on schedule for our transition and somewhat ahead,” said Chief Criss Brainard, who was hired last month.
Board Chair Theresa McKenna said she was feeling extremely confident about the transition that was set in motion last July when the board voted to sever its contract with Cal Fire about two years early.
“We simply can’t afford to stay with Cal Fire because of their increased costs for salaries, benefits and administrative fees,” she said.
In 2012, the sprawling, 47-square mile district, faced with dwindling revenue from property taxes, decided to contract for fire protection from Cal Fire. Yet the costs for those services, particularly for personnel, have escalated to the point where shifting back to a stand-alone agency makes more fiscal sense, McKenna and the board’s majority members now assert.
In fact, the district’s revised 2016-17 budget showed the cost for Cal Fire’s services at $13.2 million. For the next fiscal year, the district’s finance officer tabbed the cost for providing those same fire protection services in-house to be $11.8 million, meaning the district would be saving $1.46 million annually.
Yet not all directors agreed on the numbers. Director William Kiel said from the figures he saw in the budget, the district was facing a $1 million loss. McKenna called on former chief Darrin Howell to give his estimate on what the increased costs would be. Howell said it would be higher, but “probably $1 million is not the number you’re going to hit.”
According to the finance officer’s report, start-up costs so far are about $641,000. The new dispatch contract with the Heartland Communications Facility Authority, a joint powers agency that includes the fire departments of El Cajon, La Mesa, Santee and three other fire protection districts, will cost San Miguel $723,000 annually, the same report shows.
One area where the district will see some savings is eliminating $1.4 million in spending for a new station in the Bostonia area, following the board’s vote last month not to build the facility. That decision came after it was revealed that Lakeside Fire Protection District was opening a new station within a mile of the planned station on Pepper Drive. However, the district has already sunk some $630,000 into the project, including $400,000 on the property acquisition.
Because of the district’s decision not to build at Pepper Drive and serve that area it’s losing $24,000 a month in revenue from lost emergency calls, Kiel said. “We’re flushing money down the toilet by not moving forward,” he said.
Brainard said he has been meeting with the Lakeside district and should have a solution to the situation at the next regular meeting on April 26.
Brainard told the board that one of the district’s main ambulance providers, AMR, would be reducing the number of paramedics on vehicles from two to one, plus an emergency medical technician.
He said the change won’t affect the quality of services to patients. “The impact to patients in my opinion is zero.”
As part of the changeover to local personnel, the district is sending 39 employees to a training academy starting in June. According to a district finance report, the cost for this training was estimated to be $188,613.
In all, San Miguel has 83 employees, of which 77 are devoted to fire fighting functions, Brainard said.
The district’s 2016-17 fiscal year general fund budget increased by about $1 million over the prior year’s budget to $21.3 million. The largest category increase was for professional services, which went up 3.6 percent or $526,000 from the prior year’s budget. Within that category, the district saw increased costs caused by the hiring of a transition consultant for $114,000, and for added legal consulting costs of $55,000, among other things.
Given all the changes the district is going through, Brainard unveiled a proposal to re-brand the agency to include the word “Rescue” in San Miguel’s name. Brainard said the brand change would be seen on the district’s trucks, its badges, letterheads, and cards, and more accurately reflect what the department does. “EMS calls now make up more than 75 percent of our business,” he said.
The district’s legal name would remain San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District. Brainard didn’t provide an estimate on what the rebranding would cost, but noted the new graphic was given nearly unanimous approval from the work force.
The board approved the name change on a 6-0 vote, one of the few results of unanimity that evening, with Director Dave Rickards absent.