JOBS ON THE LINE: SAN MIGUEL FIRE VOTES TO HOLD OFF ON FIREFIGHTER LAYOFFS AMID GROWING BUDGET DEFICIT
“The industry standard is one firefighter for every 1,000 in population. San Miguel is currently operating with one firefighter for every 5,400 taxpayers.” - Alan Laatsch, president, Firefighters Local 1434
May 27, 2010 (Spring Valley) – Facing a $1.6 million deficit, San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District’s Board tonight considered a proposal to lay off three firefighters, eliminate the Administrative Division Chief position and demote several officials. But after hearing moving testimony from firefighters, fire and accident victims, and others in the community, the Board voted unanimously to reject the recommendation and consider other options.
Among the most moving testimony came from Doug de Brauwere, a father with young children. “I’ll be the first firefighter to be laid off,” he testified, his voice choked with emotion. “I spent 10 years serving my country; a year and a half of that was in Iraq.”
The young veteran, who received awards for service under heavy fire and has two young children to support, noted that he is the only member of the Department who speaks Arabic in a district with a growing Iraqi immigrant population. “I do not believe in my heart that everything possible has been done,” he said. “If I did, I could go home to my wife and kids and tell them with courage and with honor.”
The plan to lay off firefighters sparked an outcry of public protest. Before the meeting, firefighters and supporters picketed outside meeting chanting “Cut the fat.”
Linda Larsen, a homeowner who voted for a fire parcel tax measure that failed to win approval from voters, said San Miguel firefighters saved her life during a medical emergency. She argued for public outreach funds to be cut instead of firefighters. Suddenly she recognized Sean Hull, a young firefighter/paramedic who had just testified that his job, too, was on the line. “I just realized he’s the one who saved me,” she said, giving Hull a hug.
Darrin Young, a third firefighter due to lose his job, penned his speech on the back of a resume. He told the board he’d come to the district because of its fine reputation and had hoped to finish his career here.
Larry Jackman, director, said at the beginning of the meeting that the three positions were ones that voters had refused to fund when the ballot measure failed. “We can no longer afford to keep them,” he said, noting that the finance committee had “scrubbed the budget” repeatedly to make other cuts. He said other cuts proposed were insignificant compared to the amount of budget cuts needed to save jobs and prevent demotions. The proposal would save $402,000 the first year and $370,000 in subsequent years, he said.
The District already recently made $1.3 million in cuts, both personnel and non-personnel, according to Jackman. The firefighters union also made concessions, agreeing to reduce salaries in order to increase employee pension contributions. Despite those changes, however, the District faces a $1.6 million deficit this year and a projected shortfall of $900,000 in 2011-12. Since 2007, the District has absorbed $5 million in total cuts.
Jackie Luster told how firefighters rescued her during a horrific car accident in which her friend was killed. “The car had landed on my head…Me and my friend were pinned in the backseat,” she recalled. By the time firefighters from San Miguel arrived, lifted up the car and pulled her out, she was no longer breathing. “If they had taken a minute longer, I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I was seconds away from dying.”
Lori Bruner lost her Crest home in the 2003 wildfires. “A friend lost her daughter, her hands and her feet,” she said. “I was in the backyard when that 200 foot fire tornado hit and we didn’t have anyone there.” Since then, the District has cut seven firefighters and one engine. “Now you want to cut more firefighters?” she said, adding that she is outraged. “You are empowering who lives and who dies with how you vote.” Another Crest resident testified that she was afraid of losing fire insurance if firefighting protection is cut back.
Alan Laatsch, president of the firefighters’ union Local 1434, said that under Chief August Ghio’s leadership, administrative staffing had risen by 50% while the number of engines fell 12%. “The industry standard is one firefighter for every 1,000 in population. San Miguel is currently operating with one firefighter for every 5,400 taxpayers.”
He suggested cutting programs to save jobs and further stated that it is “arrogant” to predict a huge shortfall in 2012. He also called for the board to make its decision—for better or worse—tonight. “Do not table this,” he urged.
Some speakers were critical of the Board. One suggested that too much emphasis is being placed on fire prevention over fire protection. Another stated that public records revealed Chief Ghio’s expenses included dinner at Savanna Grill and a sushi bar, expenses she considered extravagant. Charlene Ayers, a citizen who has done numerous public records searches, accused the board of lacking transparency in its actions.
East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery lives in the District and has seen San Miguel firefighters and paramedics save homes and lives on her street. She proposed that the Board “think outside the box on the revenue side” by asking community members and corporations for voluntary donations and by organizing some community fundraising events, including an auction and raffle to raise funds to save firefighters’ jobs. Her proposal was met with applause by the audience.
Another speaker proposed eliminating public information officer Leonard Villareal’s position. But Villareal told ECM that his job includes fundraising—and that he has brought in over $650,000 in the past year to the district and the region through grants, gifts and donations---funds that far exceed his salary. “We also have regional cooperation, and that takes leadership, “ he added, noting that 55 agencies helped deliver a “before the threat” message simultaneously to the public.
Following public testimony, the Board met in a private session. Afterwards, the emerged and voted unanimously not to accept the Finance Committee’s motion and to instead explore other options.
Jackman, who had signed the Finance Committee letter had this to say after the decision. “We have an immense investment in Doug, Darrin and Sean…We have to work out some way to come to an alternative solution.”
The decision was met with cheers by firefighters, their families, and community members who packed the hearing room. Learning that their jobs had been spared, the three young firefighters embraced and thanked those who spoke out on their behalf.