THE LAST STAND: JULIAN-CUYAMACA IS ONLY VOLUNTEER FIRE DISTRICT THAT HAS NOT YET JOINED COUNTY FIRE AUTHORITY

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Story and photos by Julie Pendray

Photo:  County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham addressed about 100 people at a special meeting of Julian/Cuyamaca Fire Protection District on July 27.

Updated with audio to document and clarify board members' comments at an earlier meeting on this issue.

August 9, 2017 (Julian) – Impassioned pleas to save the volunteer fire operation in this historic California gold mining town were rebutted by cold, hard, financial facts at a special public meeting of the Julian/Cuyamaca Fire Protection District.

As the last rural fire district holding out against dissolving into the County Fire Authority (CFA), Julian will lose its County subsidy on January 1, 2018.  Julian-Cuyamaca’s district will not be able to provide the current level of fire and ambulance services without it, according to its chief. The County’s dissolution proposal is the result of a 2015 contract between the district and County in exchange for subsidies. It would establish Cal-Fire as the operator of Julian and Cuyamaca fire stations under the CFA.

Photo, right:  Julian volunteer firefighter Mike Hatch addressed the board at the recent special meeting.

Under that contract, the district was supposed to file dissolution papers by July 1 but has not done so. Residents are holding their ground in the wake of public regrets and warnings by other rural districts who have allowed the County to take over. At issue are possible slower emergency response times, as well as loss of knowledgeable volunteers and community identity.

The July 27 meeting was a calm gathering of about 100 people, in spite of years of threats of lawsuits against the board and board member replacement, a contentious town hall meeting, and an allegation of a violation of the Brown Act (state public meeting law) regarding negotiations with the County.

Some residents see the County as strong-arming locals to opt for big government. At a mid-June  meeting, there was a discussion in which board members discussed concerns. The official minutes of June 13, 2017 meeting, item 14 described it this way: “Threatens and then schmoozing is how the meeting went with Reddick and Meechum (sic.)”

Clarification: an earlier version of this story cited official board approved minutes that attributed words to board member Kramer which he later told ECM  were not his comments. An  audiotape since provided by Kramer indicates that board member Aida Tucker asked questions about threats and schmoozing in that June meeting; Kramer can be heard affirming and elaborating on those concerns.

Tony Mecham, the CFA Chief, gave a presentation at the nearly three-hour recent meeting at Julian’s brand new fire station on Highway 79, which will be turned over to the County if the dissolution goes ahead. Hermann Reddick, County Fire Program Manager, also attended, along with Julian’s part-time fire chief Rick Marinelli, who Mecham said will be offered a job with the County if the district dissolves.

Photo, left: Fire Chief Rick Marinelli talks to a Julian resident after the July 27 special meeting.

Marinelli summed up the district’s problem: “The money simply isn’t there.”

The 2017-2018 budget, available on the district’s web site, shows a transfer to reserve of just $54,000 for fire services and $8,000 for the ambulance operation. Financial reports show projected income from fire services of $557,100 and expenses of $503,000. That includes the current County subsidy of $60,000, which will no longer be offered. The ambulance services income is projected at $517,000, with expenses of $509,000. No County ambulance subsidy is noted.

Previous reports on East County Magazine (ECM) indicate that the ambulance service operated in the red for seven out of 10 years prior to 2013.  That year, an anonymous donor provided $85,000 to keep the district in the black. The ambulance side of the operation has frequently been the money problem, according to information shared at the meeting, due to increasing costs of upgrading technology, plus Julian’s older population (median age is 53.7 according to CityData.com) and services provided to patients without insurance compared to a shortfall in compensation from Medi-Cal and Medicare.

Under the County proposal, Julian would continue to get assistance during emergencies but priority would go to areas under the CFA and Julian would be billed for help that was offered, Mecham said.

The County proposal for Julian has these provisions:

  1. CFA would provide a Cal-Fire-level fire chief and the office would be at a Cal-Fire station in Julian. Two career Cal-Fire staff would be posted at each station. Stipends would be offered to volunteers. The area of responsibility would expand to include Shelter Valley and Ocotillo Wells.
  2. The district board would become an advisory board. Julian would have a seat on Community Service Area (CSA) 135.
  3. All existing volunteers could apply to become CFA volunteers but they’d have to take and pass a physical exam and background test to be accepted.
  4. Emergency medical services would be opened up for bidding.

One fear expressed by residents about the move to merge into CFA operations is that the San Diego County charter does not include fire services. That begs the question: could the County back out of serving unincorporated areas in the future? ECM asked County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents Julian, if she thought fire service should be added to the charter    http://www.sandiegocounty.gov/cob/docs/charter.pdf  which currently does not even contain the word “fire,” and also, what her response is to the backcountry’s expressed concerns. She was not at the meeting but responded by email afterward.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the fire district to determine if it wants to consolidate or remain a stand-alone department,” said Jacob, who was a driving force behind the CFA when it was established in 2007, after the Witch Creek Fire that began near Santa Ysabel, ripped through Julian and all the way to Rancho Bernardo, killing two people, destroying 1,125 residential structures and injuring 45 firefighters. The cost to suppress the conflagration was $18 million.

Jacob continued, “The recent decision by the Rural Fire District and Pine Valley Fire District Boards answers many of the questions and concerns raised by residents on whether or not to join the San Diego County Fire Authority (SDCFA).  Their respective boards made the decision that to join SDCFA would enhance fire and emergency medical services in their communities and improve coordination of resources throughout the region.”

Pine Valley Fire Protection District dissolved this week. The district served its community for 70 years. Fire Chief Bob Uribe notified residents via Valley Views, a community newsletter, attached to this story.

In 2013, Jacob told ECM that putting all the rural fire districts under the CFA would give the agency “the same regional importance as the Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s Office and the Probation Department.”

“That would happen whether fire protection is added to the county charter or not,” she said in 2013. “Public safety operations, such as those within the Sheriff’s Department, are currently not included in the San Diego County charter. As part of the consolidation process, the county must provide a long-range plan to ensure that the level of fire protection is adequate. In other words, the county wouldn’t be able to just walk away. That’s a big improvement over the current situation. Never before has fire protection been a part of county government.”

County financial support for fire services to unincorporated areas ended in 1978, after passage of Prop. 13. That caused communities to start their own volunteer services. However, the County of San Diego did not add fire services to its charter like other major counties have, such as Los Angeles. http://file.lacounty.gov/lac/charter.pdf

ECM also asked Supervisor Bill Horn for comments about the charter because his district includes a large swath of backcountry, such as Pala and Borrego Springs. He referred the question to Mecham, who said fire services don’t need to be in the charter.

“With the creation of County Service Area 135 and the associated transfer of duties and responsibilities for latent powers of fire protection and emergency medical services, the County now has a legal mandate to provide fire protections and a percentage of the property tax revenue is dedicated solely to this function,” Mecham said by email. “CSA 135 is not different than a fire district other than it is considered a dependent special district under the County Board of Supervisors. Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara County Fire Departments are also operated as dependent districts under the Board. In the 1970s the County did not have CSA 135 or any legal requirement to provide fire protection, it was purely discretionary.  Now, it is not discretionary revenue but dedicated revenue.”

However, George Lucia, who retired as Palomar Mountain Fire District chief in 2013, has warned the Julian district not to join the County Fire Authority, which his former district did, as reported by ECM. “If I could turn back time, I would never put pen to paper with the County,” he said. NBC news reported Lucia saying, “I have regretted it every day since then,” according to the ECM account.

In recent years, a Campo fire district board member, Craig A. Williams, wrote a letter that was posted on a Julian community web site, saying his district had more “dark” unstaffed days since the change. He urged Julian residents to raise money to keep their independent operation. Cal-Fire agreed there were dark days but not as many as Williams said and no lack of coverage, but simply lesser-trained personnel.

According to then Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Cliff Kellogg in 2013, CFA has had staffing problems that have caused “as many as six or seven unstaffed fire stations a day throughout the county,” the Valley News Roadrunner reported.

Under CFA, Cal-Fire firefighters could be dispatched somewhere else, so the fear of rural communities is that they could be caught in a wildfire without speedy assistance. Julian and Cuyamaca, near Cleveland National Forest, are vulnerable settings, where residents still well remember the death of a state firefighter in nearby Wynola during the Cedar Fire of 2003. Cuyamaca was leveled by the fire and the historic downtown of Julian narrowly escaped destruction. Volunteer firefighters were critical in saving homes -- some lost their own, while saving those of others. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-julian-survives-cedar-fire-38-percent-contained-2003oct31-story.html

Photo, right:  A wagon wheel outside the new Julian fire station reflects the rural community's history.

At the special board meeting in Julian, the public referred to a more recent Shelter Valley fire in which a Cal-Fire employee with less experience was stationed there on his own and had insufficient training to deal with the vehicle during an emergency. But Mecham said that was just one incident. He asked the public to consider all the other times when fire service goes well.

While the CFA can offer paid staffing 24/7 and possibly lower insurance rates, districts that have moved under the County have complained about “promises made but not kept,” according to ECM articles. Some have questioned whether lower insurance rates will be available if longer response times give wildfires a chance to grow, due to Cal-Fire’s lack of knowledge of backcountry roads.

Discussions about Julian’s possible dissolution have been ongoing since 2013, after Marinelli approached the CFA for financial assistance soon after he was hired.

At the July 27 special meeting, his blunt financial summary was like a splash in the face with cold water in response to some speakers’ more subjective concerns. After one resident talked about the cohesive community spirit, in which people would continue to help the district and urged Marinelli and the board to “forget the money,” Marinelli said with a frown, “We can’t forget the money.” In response to speakers declaring that the local operation in this tiny mountain town reflects the spirit of the backcountry, Marinelli was emphatic. “I don’t want a quaint little historical fire department. I want a state-of-the-art fire service.”

In the early 2000s, the district had a reported reserve of nearly $400,000, according to ECM accounts. But it has faced litigation, workers comp claims, increased insurance rates, increasing high technology costs, equipment replacement, radio system costs, loss of property tax revenue due to wildfires and loss of County funds that offset salaries. In recent years, the County has provided an annual $60,000 subsidy. In 2013, the subsidy was as much as $100,00 to cover all station operations and dispatch fees.

Julian property owners pay an assessment fee of $50 per parcel and that hasn’t changed in at least 30 years. In 2013, the board considered putting the possible dissolution or an assessment increase to a public vote. However, the cost of a 2014 special election was deemed too expensive, according to ECM articles. That decision came after a board vote about dissolution ended in a tie (2-2) which meant no action took place. The board president then and now, Jack Shelver, voted then for joining the County. Aida Tucker, who also is still on the board, voted against. At the July 27 special meeting, board member Kirsten Starlin said she was uncomfortable making a decision without putting the issue before the community for a vote. That would mean the item would go on the ballot during a primary or general election. There is no current move to do that, Shelver told ECM on Aug. 8, after the regular board meeting.

At the recent special meeting, a volunteer firefighter, David Loader, with 25 years serving the district, told the gathering, “We’re at this stage now because our board let us down. We should have been doing this two years ago. If the community as a whole believes we should (dissolve) this district, then we can do this with a consensus. Get in touch with the board, let them know what you think, then they don’t have to be burdened with it, because they haven’t made a decision in two years anyway.”

None of the public who spoke said they were in favor of the dissolution.

For many people present, the heart of this matter resides with the longtime volunteers. One resident told the board, “These people are like family.” Others asked whether current volunteers could continue to operate under a CFA controlled station, given the state’s grueling standards for the qualifying physical test, which many agree most of Julian’s volunteers wouldn’t be able to pass.

Photo, left:  JCFPD logo on fire truck

Mecham said the CFA is still exploring possibilities.

“There’s no age cut off,” he said. “There is a value to the district even if they can’t crawl under buildings anymore. I will come up and have a cup of coffee with the volunteers. We need to hear from them what they want. I have great respect for the people who have been here. The volunteers have been a central part of the community. There has to be a willingness by both parties to compromise.” He said there might be home-based duties that some volunteers could perform. The CFA has previously suggested volunteers who don’t pass the physical could do crowd control or help with water tenders, according to ECM reports.

No action was taken at the special meeting. After it adjourned, Shelver told ECM that the subject “is a complex issue.”

In 2013, board member Aida Tucker (now vice president) told the public at a board meeting that she and fellow members of the Julian/Cuyamaca district weren’t “accountants or lawyers” or “backroom dealing politicians with hidden agendas” but rather they are “Julian locals trying to do what is right.”

At the recent special meeting, several of them nodded in concurrence when Starlin mentioned she’d been losing sleep over the issue. She said she knew Mecham had, too.

To dissolve or stay independent. It is considered “one of the most important decisions to be made in the history of Julian,” according to one member of the public, Bob Adams, in a previous ECM article. He added, “Boards like this are the bedrock of America.”

If the district does dissolve, the new fire station where the recent meeting was held – for which residents raised funds – would transfer to the CFA along with all the district’s other assets and liabilities. The dissolution would be performed through LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission).

No action was taken at the Aug. 8 regular Julian-Cuyamaca board meeting. Board president Jack Shelver told ECM by phone, “We went into closed session to discuss strategy on the issue. We’ll be having talks again with the County in two or three weeks.”

Resources:

Proposal update

2015 Agreement

JCFPD Request to County

2016-2017 Fire Budget

Presentation update

Brochure

 

See our prior coverage: 

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