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By Nadin Abbott

Photos Tom Abbott

May 8, 2013 (Jamul)—As part of the County’s efforts to consolidate rural fire departments, the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District was asked last night whether “it will continue to operate as an independent fire district or dissolve and become part of the  new County Fire Authority (CFA).”

The County has given the District until June 30th to sign on a one-year contract that would extend the current contract with Cal-Fire, but ultimately would lead to the dissolution of the district under the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO.)

The pending decision has sparked concerns among residents in the District, which is a high fire risk area that has seen some of the worst wildfires in our region. It is also the area where major new energy projects are proposed which would increase the risk of fire.

Before the meeting, ECM talked with Mary Manning of Harbinson Canyon, a survivor of the Cedar Fire and active community member. Her part of the district was served by a fully volunteer-staffed fire station until three years ago. Manning said that in 2008 Cal Fire “stepped in, and now it is staffed five out seven days of the week.”

One of the options before the district is to go back to where it was back in 2006, and according to Manning, that “is not an option.” In her mind this is a different era, and while her husband was a volunteer at one time, these days volunteers have to have the same training as paid personnel.

This was confirmed by Cal Fire Chief David Nissen, who told ECM that the only difference between a volunteer these days and career staff is a pay check.

What concerns Manning and other members of the community is the same concern echoed in Julian earlier in the year. They are all afraid that while the County is promising to remain in the fire service, “the County will get out like they did in 1978.”

This was repeated by Marcia Spurger, who was there in 1978 when the County told the rural areas, “We are not going to provide fire protection for rural areas, no more money for the rural areas,” she recalled.

The Fire District had to be started from nothing. It had a lot of second-hand,  barely working equipment. She also said that once Cal-Fire came in, the department lost a lot of volunteers (again, a fear echoed in Julian.)

Once the meeting started, Director D. Amato started by summarizing the offer of the County. The district couldo extend its contract with Cal Fire for one more year, but at the end of that year they will need to start the process of dissolution through LAFCO.

The County is currently paying the district $2.5-3 million which goes to Cal-Fire and the County wants to do this directly. This is on top of the money raised through property taxes (Ad Valorem) and the special assessments the district charges.  In other words, the County wants to cut off its funding for the Distirct.

Without the funds provided by the County, there is not enough money to fund the Fire Department at current levels of operations.

Here is the kicker, and why residents are afraid that the County will pull out of the fire service. Unlike Los Angeles, or Ventura, or Riverside Counties, San Diego does not have fire protection in the County Charter.

While the current Board of Supervisors says it is committed to fire protection, there is no guarantee for a future board. Given the realities of changing priorities at the County, and term limits, nothing will be written in stone.

According to Amato, Supervisor Dianne Jacob was asked about this. She was crystal clear, according to him, “they are not going to change the charter.”

Amato also emphasized that the County wanted to start dissolution of the district immediately,  but the board was able to negotiate a year extension, since they want to take this to the people and ask the people what they want to do. They represent the people, he made clear, and as of now, they have not taken any final decision.

Regardless, final dissolution will take a unanimous vote by the Board, or a special election if they cannot reach agreement.

Amato also said that at this time board members are not sure “what local control remains, we are not sure about much of anything.”  But they have a deadline to sign the one-year extension by June 30. (A copy of the draft contract was provided to all citizens at the meeting.)

The one-year extension provides for full-time staffing of the Jamul, Lake Morena, East Otay and Descanso fire stations. It also provides for pParamedic staffing starting in fiscal year 2014 at Jamul and Lake Morena, as well as paramedic staffing at East Otay and Desnco starting in FY 2015/16. This is added service that does not exist yet. Chief Nissen said it would improve medical services for the backcountry.

This one year extension is predicated on the District entering LAFCO dissolution and ultimately being absorbed by the County into the County Fire Authority.

There is the option, Damato said, of not joining the CFA, and “going back to the staffing of 2006.” In this case the District has enough money to only staff the Jamul and Otay stations, and the rest will have to fully revert to volunteers. In his mind, at the moment, “going with the County is a step forwards.”

The recommendation, on the agenda for next month to be voted on, is to sign the contract “to buy us some time to get better terms.”

Sperger addressed the board and reminded them that the District already went though the volunteer process once. “We haven’t seen any of the bylaws. We don’t know if they address our specific needs.” She reminded them that in 1978 “we walked away with nothing.”

She congratulated the Board for the great job they are doing. “They are taking local control and local care.”

Board member R. Terry said that if the district remained independent, they would have to do this without the $3.2 million the County provides, and they will have to rely on “the $1 million we collect.” All these funds are discretionary funds, and unless they change the charter they still go away.

Amato said that although the Board has not seen the plan, the reality is that the County wants to fully control the funds that it gives the District.

Terry admitted that they could potentially remain independent and keep four paid stations, but only if they raise the special assessments from $100.00 household to $450-$500 per household. But there would still be no staffing at Harbinson Canyon and Deerhorn.

While the County, through Kenneth Miller, keeps telling local districts that the money raised in the district will remain in district regardless of what happens, there is another fear echoed from our coverage of Julian. The fear is that the taxes raised, whether from special assessment fees, or Ad Valorem taxes, (property taxes) will go to the County’s General Fund and not be used for fire protection in rural areas.

Pat Webb, a long time resident, admitted that he has not been following this in detail. So he asked Miller how long has the CFA existed and whether other areas have gotten the same demands. Chief Nissen answered that Pine Valley has agreed (it is now part of County Service Area 135, which this District would become part off), but that Julian-Cuyamaca did not. Miller said that their vote was two-two, with one seat empty.

Miller said that where the services have been implemented it has worked well. The CFA is under the Public Safety section of the county. Cal Fire has taken operations while the County does coordination. He also noted that the budget is an annual process.

Miller also explained that this is the product of the Cedar fire (this year is the ten year anniversary), and fire protection has also increased through Amador contracts to keep stations open during the winter months.

Currently the budget is at $15.5 million and the contract with Cal Fire is a five year contract, but guaranteed for one year. Miller also assured attendees that Herman Reddick, program director, has the support of the full board of Supervisors.

Damato said that after the the 2003 fires, this became a priority for Supervisor Jacob. He also said that they have been benefiting from this priority starting in 2006, when phase two of the consolidation program started. This is phase three.

Terry asked who would be the contact in the County? Miller said that this would be Susan Casarano, who has been with the department since 2004.  She is the person who tracks all the money. He also said that they prefer to solve all problems at the lowest level possible.

Manning emphasized that “we cannot go back to a volunteer service,” because of the requirements.

Miller offered that they are creating positions for volunteers to serve their community in support positions if they do not qualify for pulling hose. The County wants to go back to that sense of community and volunteerism, he indicated.

District Chairman Lou Russo countered that all this talk is nice, but added, “We want to see something in writing. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Russo then urged every attendee to contact their representatives to ask questions, and to email their Supervisor. All addresses were provided. He also said that there would be more hearings since this was up to the community.

After the meeting ECM talked with Miller, who said the County remodeled the Dulzura station and now it works better. On top of the paramedics to come, which in the beginning the District will pay for, they also will bring one more career firefighter for the ladder truck.

Just how long that would last, however, is far from assured.

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This article has been up for days and no comments from the public. The reason San Diego County gets away with not having a fire department is no one gives a you know what! At least the East County Magazine tried.