By Nadin Abbott; photos Tom Abbott
April 5, 2013 (Julian) At this morning’s meeting of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District board held at the Women’s Club, the Board voted 2-2 (with one unexcused absence) on the proposal to join the County Fire Authority and dissolve the District. Chairman Jack Shelver and Alan Marvin voted yes; Aida Tucker and Janet Bragdon voted no.
This means, according to Shelver, that “a tie is no action, and therefore we have taken no action, on the motion we have set in motion. We are no longer talking to the County about a contract and we will continue as an independent district.” At this announcement, the crowd, 50 strong, broke into cheers.
Before the vote, when you could hear a pin drop, the discussion grew heated, with several citizens voicing displeasure and distrust to the board.
During the open meeting period, Stephen R. Sheppard read a letter that he later submitted to the board, asking for a forensic audit. It is not clear whether Sheppard still wants to proceed given the vote taken.
Lisa Elkins also informed the board that she had filed a Letter of Intent to join the board, as soon as a vacancy became available. Her letter was filed to both the County of San Diego and the Board. Later on ECM learned from Elkins that seven such letters have been filed.
Shelver said that indeed the Board is “expecting a vacancy and we will be opening it up. The Board of Supervisors do not appoint, this board will.”
Elkins pressed Shelver. “You guys are doing the vetting process?”
“We can’t discuss this today, it’s not in the agenda,” Shelver responded. “We accept your letter.”
Then came a back and forth on whether there was a violation of the Brown Act before the prior meeting, when citizens have said the Board met with County officials and Cal Fire officials behind closed doors. The Board claims there was no violation because he says the door was open, as they were setting up the room.
Elkins told them that they had a tape from the lsat public meeting in which Herman Reddick, County Fire authority representative, stated, `“We met with the Board prior to this meeting,'” Elkins told the Board.
In yesterday’s meeting, Board member’s remarks make clear that more than three Board members were present during that discussion, though some disputed discussing board matters.
“That door was open the whole time. Jack was talking to Herman and the rest of the Board members Aida and Betty showed up after I was already here. They were helping set up,” said Tucker.
Shelver tried to stop the discussion a few times. After the meeting ECM learned that citizens have filed letters of complaint on this.
Shown a transcript of yesterday’s meeting, Terry Francke, General Counsel of Californians Aware, told ECM that even if the door was open, “There's also a problem if a quorum had a discussion with someone before the official meeting was scheduled to convene.”
When the time came time to vote, some Board members spoke about their decisions.
The tension rose in the room, as Tucker stood up to read a statement to community members. “The past few months have been some of the most difficult in my several years on this board.” She reminded those in the audience of the difficult economy and the fact that “our district has had to deal with a major loss of property tax income from the fires.”
(Proposition 13,limits the property tax rate to 1 percent of a property's assessed value. Prop 13 also limits how much a property's assessed value can rise annually to the lesser of 2 percent or the state's inflation rate.“ But these taxes depend on whether the property is improved or not. When houses burn, that has to be adjusted to non improved status.
Tucker went on to explain that the District faces litigation, as well as workers comp claims “that almost doubled our insurance rates.” She then went on to talk about the loss of County moneys that previously “helped to offset some of our office and salary costs.”
Tucker also reminded the people that the offer from the County had been “on the table for many years, since we started accepting $60,000 per year per year station budget and dispatch cost.” She added that nobody knew the details of the offer until the County was finally approached.
Tucker thanked those who supported the Board members and recognized that they were volunteers trying to do their best. She acknowledged also that there is a vicious rumor mill and voiced dismay over “how fast people gossip.”
“We are trying to do the best that we can with the information that we have at every step of the way,” she added. “I want to thank the people who realize we are not accountants or lawyers, and we aren’t back room dealing politicians with hidden agendas but Julian locals trying to do what is right.” Her voice quivered as she read this, the emotion obvious to anybody in the room.
She thanked by name “Johnny Hake, Eva Hatch, a high school student, and Patricia Landis.” She ended her statement with this: “My decision, it would be based solely on facts and information of what I feel is the best for our great little town, not pressured from the nasty rumor mill.”
Before the vote Bragdon told those in attendance that “I concur with Aida, and thank you for those of you who understand the pressure we have been under.”
she spoke a Julian volunteer crew from the District responded to a medical aid call.
After the vote was taken, Shelver told the community, “It is time to dispose of the rancor and get on with business…We have a fire station to build. We have volunteers that need to bee nurtured, assisted and aided. We have a lot of a lot of business to attend to and a lot of healing to do.”
Julian resident Tim Garrity told Shelver, “Next election you’ll be gone.”
After the meeting ECM talked with Bob Adam who said that “this is one of the most important decisions” made in the history of Julian. A self-described political junkie, he added, “American politics is at it’s best when people vote their conscience.”
He also observed, “When the vote was called, the question, there was no place to hide.” He worried though that some people will still hold grudges, but reminded all that these boards “are the bedrock of America.”
Shelver told ECM after the meeting that there is a lot of healing to do. “it wil happen,” he predicts.
He also noted that the board has been hearing from “20 to 30 people, but there are 2,000 out there.” He said that he will do the right thing either way. Yet, he is convinced that “Many residents believe they would have gotten better fire protection from the County.”
Fire Captain James Stowers told ECM, “We have a lot of work to do.” He was the Duty Captain, and he had to go join his crews, after they came back from the call. Another Duty Captain took his place on that call.
After the meeting Elkins told ECM, “We didn’t want to fight.” She also said that she was not fully happy with it, since she believes that the seat has already been vacated. She stated that she has a community wide vote of “no confidence” against the board.
Later on in the evening ECM called Bragdon over the phone and in spite of phone line issues common to backcountry lines, we had a conversation. The Board is “getting everything back in an even keel,” she assured.
ECM raised the issue of the Fire Assessment Fee which has not been raised in over two decades. The Board is considering bringing this to a vote for the June Election of 2014. They would like it to be raised to at least $75 a year would prefer a hundred dollars.
Given that the fee is currently at $50, and the price of gas the last time it was put in place was less than a dollar, moving it to a higher fee makes sense, she notes. Just gas, and those engines use quite a bit of it, has gone to an average of $4 dollars a gallon.
She is aware that “We will have to explain why [a fee increase is needed] to those who have not attended these meetings.” In reality they need a solid income stream and cannot rely on donations, she believes.
She also invited ECM to attend the meeting on the 22nd at the Women’s Club, where she will reveal the now balanced budget for this year.
Bragdon added, “We need to have a year of operations in reserves.”
There are several reasons for that. The County does not guarantee that the $100,000 it provides to the District will be ongoing. This is a year to year issue, and “nine months ago the County took it away,” Bragdon noted. She addedthat there are other reasons to have those reserves, including a bad fire, or equipment breakdown.
The Board is also moving forward to find a replacement Fire Chief.
Bragdon also added that meetings after the 22nd will be moved, and to keep an eye on the Julian News for notices of where future meetings will be held.