Sycuan may offer hope for restoring service in Dehesa; Mount Helix could be next to lose fire services
By Miriam Raftery
October 29, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Dehesa residents are losing staffing for their fire engine and being left with only a bare-bones medical crew starting in November. Moreover, a District representative told ECM, Mount Helix could be the next community to lose fire protection if the San Miguel Fire District’s financial situation does not improve.
At a community meeting of concerned Dehesa residents Thursday night, participants put forth a variety of concerns—but also constructive suggestions for pitching in to help the district raise funds.
Short-term, help may come from some well-known neighbors: the Sycuan band of the Kumeyaay Nation. “Sycuan has told us that if our firefighters union agrees, they would consider putting firefighters on Engine 23,” Chief August Ghio told ECM, adding that board members will be meeting with labor on the issue.
Ghio gave a PowerPoint presentation showing the District’s fiscal challenges, including a $2.5 million property tax revenue reduction over the past three years. The District now reports it is now $1.5 million “out of balance” in fiscal year 2011/12 with another $1.1 million deficit forecast for fiscal year 2012/13.
The District has pared $4.5 million in expenses and made deep cuts in labor. Critics have contended the District reduce its contribution to reserves, but Ghio says the reserve fund is necessary to assure adequately working equipment during emergencies. Others have called on the District to further pare its administrative costs, such as paring down salaries for Ghio and administrative staff. Even if deeper administrative cuts were made, however (something the board has thus far resisted) it would not raise nearly enough to restore fire service.
Audience members responded with both heated concerns and positive proposals.
Some criticized the District for providing less than 24 hours notice, in some cases, of a hearing Wednesday on terminating fire service in their area. Ghio said that’s because the move was part of a labor agreement and that disclosing terms would have violated labor laws. Earlier this week, the board voted 4-2 to adopt the proposal over objections from both labor and community members present.
“It’s going to be devastating,” Kim Raddatz, a Dehesa resident and former fire chief from Coronado, said. He added that the cuts in staffing would impact response effectiveness to accidents, traumas, and fires. Moreover, he said a two-man medical crew is inadequate even for many medical situations. “If CPR is in progress, it takes more than two people,” he pointed out. He also said fire insurance costs for homeowners will rise.
Raddatz noted that in Crest, homeowners formed a fire protection district and assessed themselves $350 each for fire protection services.
“If we had that, we wouldn’t be here,” public information officer Leonard Villareal observed. A fire parcel tax of $52 per property was defeated in the San Miguel District overwhelmingly by voters.
The audience had mixed feelings on whether they would be willing to pay a benefit fee assessment in these hard economic times, though the reality is that with no fire service for the area other than mutual aid response coming from farther away, fire insurance costs will likely rise by $150 a year or more, Raddatz said.
Ghio said it would cost at least $350,000 to $370,000 to keep the engine. Some present offered to volunteer on a committee to look into ways to raise funds, such as asking churches and community groups to help, or seeing if Syucan might be willing to help sponsor a benefit concert.
While District representatives were targets of heated anger at the Board meeting one night earlier, the community meeting had a more cooperative tone.
“This was a great meeting tonight,” Ghio said afterwards, praising community members for bringing “ideas with energy and enthusiasm.”
With service slated to end November 1st in Dehesa, however, the need for help is eminent.