By Miriam Raftery
October 20, 2016 (Crest) – The stakes are high in the San Miguel Fire Board race. In July, the board majority voted to axe a contract that outsourced firefighting to Cal Fire, entered into back when property tax revenues had plummeted in the recession and the district had shut down a fire station. Now four candidates want to undo the recent vote and keep the deal with Cal Fire, while four others are running to restore local control. The ninth candidate says he hasn’t made up his mind. There are four seats up for grabs.
All nine appeared at a candidate forum tonight in Crest, a town that burned in the 2003 fires and where residents pay a higher assessment for fire services than any other fire district locally.
Both slates have posted signs claiming they are backed by firefighters.
The candidates who want to stay with Cal Fire are William Kiel, Dave Rickards, Rick Augustine, and Jeff Nelson. They are backed by the Cal Fire-San Miguel Firefighters union.
The candidates who want to restore local control and boot out Cal Fire are incumbent Karrie Johnston, Charlies Cleaves, Kim Raddatz, and Everett Evleth. They have support of prominent individual fire chiefs and firefighters.
Candidates provided opening statements at the Crest forum, listed below in the order delivered.
Karrie Johnston said if reelected, this will be her fourth term. “I was not going to run again, but I am the only incumbent with my views,” she said, recalling that she won election previously by just two votes. “Don’t ever say your vote doesn’t count!”
A former deputy sheriff who has also worked for Heartland Fire and San Diego Police as a dispatcher, she now works for American Medical Response as a supervisor. She voted for the contract with Cal Fire but “made clear I would watch it” and in July, cast the deciding vote to restore local control. Although the contract was projected to save the district money, Johnston says, “We are losing more than $100,000 a month. Now everything is on hold; Cal Fire is hoping to get another vote in this election.”
Everett Evleth, a local businessman who also coaches girls’ softball and wants to bring comraderie to the board. While coaching he says he’s met many parents who are firefighters. “It’s important to me how these groups treated each other,” he states, adding, “I want my money spent wisely.”
He says firefighters “want to do their best” for communities that they serve. “I’m on their side. I’m for local control. I want to be a voice of reason, and listen to both sides...I’m here to fight for your community and make the right decisions.”
Charlie Cleaves says he served with Army special forces and served as a U.S. Marshall for 25 years, including here in East County. He’s been involved in the community through activities such as coaching. “I know some firefighters who told me their story, their compassion, passion for local control…I have their back.”
He says he wants to “undo a wrong” done when the district inked the deal with Cal Fire. “Local control is important. The state government can’t oversee Crest. Our community should be in charge of our own decisions. That $100,000 is gone.”
Kim Raddatz is a retired Fire Chief with 22 years in firefighting service including Lakeside, Coronado and Salinas. He’s been an outspoken critic of the board at meetings. “You can’t treat Crest the same way as Rancho San Diego, or Bostonia the same way as Spring Valley…let’s listen to the communities we are representing,” he says. “This is a complex district with different assessment fees [in different areas].”
Raddatz adds, “I believe in transparency and open government…I am here for local control and fiscal responsibility.”
Jeff Nelson, a former firefighters’ union president and past director on the San Miguel board, has lived in East County for 60 years. “The biggest thing I learned as a director was financial responsibility…I was appalled to learn that programs for employees were never funded…during the downturn we lost about$5 million in the budget.”
He was on the board when it voted unanimously to outsource firefighting to Cal Fire. Like Johnston, he says he opposed that move at first but eventually voted for it when he saw it would pass, to show unanimity. Unlike Johnston, however, he says he now realizes “it was our saving grace.” But he left the door open to be persuaded otherwise, stating, “If there is an independent assessment that shows we’re in a position to go back to a freestanding district, I’d go along with that.” But if there’s no independent study to show the district would stay solvent, he states firmly, “Then we need to stay with Cal Fire.”
William Kiel, an incumbent on the board and an engineer, says his opinion changed after winning election. “When I came on, I was a proponent of local control. I learned we can’t afford it. We lost $5 million. Now we have a $3 million surplus (since the Cal Fire partnership). The other side thinks we can somehow hire more people, pay the same money and have them working 30 percent less hours…Before Cal Fire, we had closed a fire station and had to replace a three-man engine with a two-person team. “
He adds, “If the economy turns down again we will have to cut services. Right now the fiscally responsible decision is stay with Cal Fire; we’ve been able to buy a station and pay cash,” also purchasing equipment, he notes.
Dave Rickards, a four-term incumbent and retired captain from the El Cajon Fire Department (now Heartland Fire & Rescue), states, “I voted not to return to a stand-alone district. Here’s why. I cannot support something brought forward in this fashion. Our board took a vote in April 2015 [to contract with Cal Fire]. Yes, we’ve improved financially, but not enough…there is a 3 percent escalator…we have fixed costs.”
When the board majority gave the green light to returning to a stand-alone district, “I said wait a minute. We’re moving too fast,” he recalls. “There are unfunded liabilities not included.” There are other unknowns including a dispatch formula, he says. He calls moving the district to Cal Fire control “the toughest vote I had.” He objects to the fact that when the current board decided to return to local control “Cal Fire was not allowed to comeback with another bid. They were treated poorly.”
Rick Augustine served on the board for 12 years and voted to partner with Cal Fire. He recalls that property tax revenues “kept sliding” and $5 million was lost from the budget. Though that’s turning around, he thinks it’s not enough to go back to freestanding. “Our reserves have to be built back up. If we go back now we will not be stable” due to pension liabilities and potential need to cut services.
“How many Cal Fire people will possibly lose jobs?” he asked of the decision to break with Cal Fire. He says he’s heard up to 40 could lose jobs. He says that when San Miguel switched over to Cal Fire, some San Miguel firefighters got monthly stipends to stay home to help with the transition. He asked “for those about to lose jobs, how do we keep them whole?”
Augustine insisted that the board still has local control with Cal Fire in charge of firefighting. “We are the ones telling the cal Fire Chief what to do.” He says Cal Fire’s Chief has been responsive. He also says that when the Cal Fire contract was signed, the prediction was the district would be financially stable in 5 to 7 years. “We’re ahead of schedule,” he concludes. “It was a tough vote, but it was the only way to survive.”
Randy Dibb, a retired deputy Sheriff, spoke last. “I am not representing either side…This is a divided race, with four on each side. I will make fiscally prudent decisions. I’m not hell-bent on either side…I’m not a politician.” He added that he feels sorry for Crest residents paying two fees for fire services.
Next, the audience posed questions.
A man noted that some signs say firefighters support the candidates while other signs say residents support them. “Why should your mandate be to support unions and pensions?” he asked. “How ca you represent citizens when you support unions?”
Johnston replied that there is only one union now, local 2881 which includes both Cal Fire and former San Miguel Fire District firefighters. She says she first ran for the board because firefighters approached her and said they had problems with then-Chief Canard and a board member who they felt didn’t understand firefighters’ needs. Johnston thought they raised important concerns over “hiring practices and family members” so she ran for a seat.
The questioner fired back by challenging Johnston over a vote to raise taxes on Crest under the three percent escalator clause. Johnston said she did vote for it and noted that Crest had an option in the past to go with Cal Fire, but didn’t. The audience member persisted, “We are one of the highest taxed communities [for fire services] …we are the cash cow. Would you consider not voting for the 3 percent in the future?”
Johnston responded “Yes, definitely” she would consider that and look each year to see if that could be reduced or eliminated. But she noted that in the past, Crest’s fire engine was too often going off the hill to service Flinn Springs. “We took steps to keep it here” and backfill needs in Crest, she observed. “That is not happening with Cal Fire.”
Kiel confirmed the old union local 1434 is no longer in existence but said, confusingly, “Both of us are supported by different unions. I looked at what’s best for constituents. I see Cal Fire as saving us money and putting us on sound fiscal stance” avoiding uncertainties if the economy turns down again. He noted that the district is paying $1 million to CALPERS presently that’s mandated and that will go up substantially. He claims the district would have had an $8 million deficit “if that was in place. Now we have a surplus. I’m looking out for their retirement,” he said of firefighters.
A retired firefighter in the audience shot back, “Don’t play that game with me.” Kiel said it bothers him to be criticized when “I’m doing the best for everybody.”
Rickards says he’s supporting local 2881. On the tax issue, he explains, “We look at the cost of services. If they’re under, we have to raise the tax (up to the maximum 3 percent in Crest). Some years we have said no, we don’t have to do that…Everyone on our board is very sensitive to taxes…This is what’s keeping your station up here open. Personnel is the highest cost…I feel your pain.”
Cleaves chimes in next. He says the surplus will stay here if the district returns to local control, as long as taxes continue to rise. He raised another issue. “Cal Fire has guys coming in and out…let’s bring back local firefighters, some have been here 25 plus years. They love this community.” He says Cal Fire employees won’t lose their jobs; since they are state workers they would be transferred elsewhere in the state. “I don’t want anybody to lose jobs,” he insists.
He recalled that Crest lost homes during the Cedar Fire in 2003. “Cal Fire did not come in and save us. …The money is here. Keep it here; don’t send it to Sacramento to spend on others somewhere else.”
Nelson says 90 percent of the district’s costs are for firefighters. “We need to replace stations. We are replacing the Bostonia station; others need replacing. Look back five years…We lost money we have not recouped…our chief responsibility is financials, so the district is viable long term…”
Augustine notes that the entire board voted against State Responsibility area (SRA) fire fees, which even Cal Fire opposed. ”San Miguel was one of the few districts that said this was a bad deal,” he adds.
Raddatz says before he decided to run, he attended most meetings before the vote to partner with Cal Fire. “No one’s ever approached me from Cal Fire,” he adds. “The other side came to me from hearing me speak at board meetings.”
He adds pointedly, “I agree on fiscal responsibility. The budgets of departments in fire districts I’ve run far exceeded this district’s budget. San Miguel, in my opinion, never had a revenue problem. It had a spending problem…A fellow fire chief spent more than he could finance…I asked other chiefs, if you were given this budget could you balance it?” They all said "Absolutely, not a problem,"he added. “Yes, you were losing money, but if that was due to property taxes going down, why are you the only district in this county that had to go to Cal Fire? It was fiscal mismanagement.”
Raddatz also thinks the board should not be using the 3 percent escalator clause (fire tax) to balance its budget, adding, ”With proper management, this district is solvent.”
Evleth says he backs Raddatz and has confidence in his expertise. “I agree that spending was a problem,” citing “outrageous salaries” as an example.
Dibb stated simply, “I’m here to represent the residents and I’m the odd man out.”
Cleaves says “firefighters are important but the community is most important.” He adds that it’s important for firefighters to be passionate about their work and says Cal Fire has them working very long hours, many days in a row.
A man in the audience complained that a firefighting crew once said they didn’t think they could save his house. He felt he was targeted for speaking out in the past.
Cleaves noted, “Lives come before property.”
That prompted remarks from audience members; one said a local group of volunteer firefighters “sold us out” after residents voted to pay them livable wages. “We all thought people who put their lives on the line should not make less than minimum wage. Then San Miguel came along…that’s why we have hard feelings,” a man who described himself as a “recovering fire chief” stated. “I’ll go to any fire any day with any Cal Fire person. Chief Meecham is one of the best chiefs I’ve ever met.” But he conceded Cal Fire employees do move around.
“It’s really said to hear candidates talk about labor groups when we’re the residents and we want to know what services we will receive,” he went on. “We never had a revenue problem. We had a spending problem because we built a tower that we couldn’t afford,” a reference to an unfinished training facility.
Cleaves admits “I’m no expert” but says it’s important to listen to communities such as here and at a Spring Valley trailer park where he met recently with residents. “Time is the most important thing we can invest.”
A fire safe council representative said Crest residents feel like they’ve been treated like a “step child” and recalls when they were under East County Fire, they relied on grants. They passed a benefit fee in Crest and feel not enough of the money is being used here.
Johnston says, “I’m not here to bash Cal Fire” acknowledging the work they do fighting wildfires. But she adds, “The Fire Chief should be coming to communities. We don’t have that with Cal Fire.” She recalls that when she voted for the Cal Fire partnership (before voting to undo it) “I told Chief Porter `I’m going to ride you like Seattle Slew.”
She notes that the state has approved paying firefighters a minimum of $15 an hour. “We will get higher bills as that goes up,” she said. “We would have no control over that” if the district stays with Cal Fire. We either pay it or we cut firefighters.” (Note: California has approved gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers, so eventually even workers in a freestanding district would earn this wage.)
She cited high retirement costs and other expenses. “Nobody gets free medical for life as we had in San Miguel Fire. That’s where our costs got out of control.” She criticized the pro-Cal Fire slate of candidates for first praising the district’s chief financial, then claiming her later analysis made no sense.
She affirmed, “I voted for it [the Cal Fire deal]and I was wrong.” She also disputed that the board has control over the fire chief under Cal Fire. “Wrong. Who is the real chief? The state of California. He is a puppet. We have no local control.”
Kiel states, “If we get a higher bill from Cal Fire, we can see if it’s cheaper to go back to a stand-alone district.” He faults a study by the CFO that left out costs of caring for an injured firefighter who Cal Fire has been covering.
Kiel adds that he agrees the district had a spending problem, incurring debt, but “We’ve got to plan for the worst case scenario, not the best case scenario.” He points out that the contract with Cal Fire allows the district to go back to a free-standing district with one year notice.
An audience member who said he’s represented San Miguel Firefighters asked “Will we be able to go back to lifetime medical?”
Johnston says no, though some were grandfathered in. She adds that firefighters don’t have to come back to San Miguel; they can stay with Cal Fire if they choose, but many may want to work 56 hours a week for San Miguel instead of 72 hours a week for Cal Fire.
She warned, “Now all the new contracts with Cal Fire require that it must go to the public for a two-thirds vote to get out of the contract.” Kiel says that’s not true.
Someone asked those on the board why they now want a revote. Why not when we as a community were pleading for a revote when you went to Cal Fire?
Rickards says the district was balancing the budget “on the backs” of firefighters and closing stations. “We need long-term fire protection. We owe that to our residents.” He opposing going back to free-standing due to unfunded liabilities and lack of training support for 30 or 31 firefighters on probation. “By July 13 we are supposed to be turnkey. As a former firefighter, that bothers me…dispatch is not worked out. Will it be through Heartland or Monte Vista? How many people are coming over?“ He says bills for certain upgrades are coming due and there are PERS costs.
“We wanted an outside study. Flaws I found raised red flags.,” Rickards adds, noting that the board voted down spending money on an outside study.
Theresa McKenna, a board member, asked Augustine if he was aware the CFO was excluded from attending finance meetings and prohibited from conversing with board members about the budget.
He said he was not aware, but that there were lunches where “she had opportunities to inform me” if this was a problem.
Someone asked if the board conducted an independent audit before it decided to go with Cal Fire.
Augustine said that was different, since Cal Fire was an existing agency. “I’ve put a department together from scratch and it takes time.” He noted that San Miguel lacks an operations plan, though it owns fire stations and engines.
Nelson said he was not aware of the CFO issues. He insisted the board was getting quarterly reports showing the district losing money. “If you’re saying that information was wrong, you need to prove it,” he challenged.
An audience member said she had a tape of the board being advised savings would be 20 percent with Cal Fire, then to be conservative the estimate was reduced to 10 percent. ”If you knew it would be zero percent at the end of this contract, would you have voted for it?”
Nelson said once he realized there were four votes for the contract “it didn’t matter” so he voted yes too. He added that a medical cap was renegotiated on his watch. He urged that everyone move on and not look back.
Raddatz bristled at the remark. “Don’t patronize me when I have run a $100 million budget.. I’ve heard time and again from Davie [Rickards] “I wanted an independent analysis. That’s moving forward.” He recalled that before the vote for Cal Fire, “I pleaded, `Whatever you do, before you vote, please do an outside analysis. You will find out you’re financially solvent.”
He insisted the two-thirds vote clause is something Cal Fire wants to add to future contracts, though it’s not in the current one. “I had lunch with a Cal Fire chief up north and he said it’s coming.”
Raddatz told a troubling story about an unnamed past San Miguel Fire Chief who he says turned down an offer from fire chiefs at several other districts to help share the cost of some mobile communications apparatus. “The district wrote a check for $780,000.” He says he asked San Miguel’s CFO and she replied that she’d been totally removed from handling this budget “She is one of the most highly respected CFOs for any fire district in California! It boils down to this: if you take the whipped cream off, do you want local control or do you not?”
Kiel responds, “We didn’t do an independent study to go to Cal fire because those costs were known.”
Raddatz called that “Absolutely false.”
Johnston objected to attacks on the CFO, noting “She’s not here to defend herself.”
Kiel says he was board president last year and “every single thing I asked of Cal Fire they did” except for one request made by director McKenna, he added. “Cal Fire, they were going to pay for finishing our training center. That’s stopped now. We were on the front line to get a first strike force;” he adds. “Why did we do another vote [to undo the contract] before the end of the contract?”
Rickards says the board had laid off firefighters and cut benefits and pay to keep fire engines operating, which justified going with Cal Fire. “Now there is a surplus…but you still have unfunded liabilities.”
Then he reveals,” LAAFCO is calling for independent audits of this district and Lakeside, per Supervisor Dianne Jacob. That will happen, just not before the election…we want to do this right.”
A representative for Cal Fire’s firefighters who is also a captain at the Spring Valley station says, “It would be good for this group to invite our Fire Chief Mecham to come up here…Can you explain the proposal Chief Mecham brought forward for this community about six months ago?”
“He offered four-person staffing on an engine,” the rep went on.
The “recovering chief” in the audience weigh ed in. “We were at that meeting. Chief Mecham presented a good case, but when you’re talking about moving us from East County Fire to San Miguel to Cal Fire to County Fire…that would’ve been our best deal, but Chief Mecham never had a chance to present it. He is a very smart Chief who wasn’t going to get in the middle of that pissing match.”
He complained,” I see two factions and one guy who doesn’t stand for anything.” He says the board hasn’t been respectful, adding of the candidates, “I’m appalled at all of them…we can’t keep electing people who tell us what they will do and then do whatever they want.”
Cleaves promised ot “invest in Crest” and spend time to “come up here and get to know you” noting the anger held by some in the crowd.
Another audience member said tersely, “We’ve cut back. I want to see you cut back. That’s all.”
One resident thanked the candidates for coming, then offered some kind words for Cal Fire. “Tom Porter, his two captains, he opened his door and talked about evacuation. That never came up before. They had the resources to make sure they did grading, on the evacuation route where 68 cars went down in the 2003 fire. Dianne Jacob says Cal Fire will look at the trail system as possible evacuation routes and routes for crews to access. I’m very happy to pay fees for Cal Fire that has expertise on brush fires. The old East County Fire was buying the wrong equipment for fighting high-rise fires.”
Johnston changed topics to warn Crest residents that due to changes in County ambulance service. “Crest now has a 30-minute allowable response time. The only answer is to get Grossmont Hospital to put you in a different zone…This is a very big issue.” That means 30 minutes 90 percent of the time; 10 percent can be even longer. She explained that unlike AMR, which formerly had the rural contract, Mercy has just seven ambulances for a vast region.
Dan O’Leary, a former San Miguel employee, says when his son was having seizures “I had to call three times…Cal Fire was there 40 minutes twice, waiting for AMR to arrive.”
Johnston adds, “This is a Dianne Jacob issue…I find it appalling.”
Rickards says AMR and Mercy have made some progress on mutual aid.
Johnston says San Miguel’s Board already sent a letter to Supervisors but nothing has happened. “If you call 911 it goes to Cal Fire; if Cal Fire doesn’t transfer the call to AMS, they don’t know there is a medical call…They won’t let the call go to the nearest ambulance. It’s a revenue issue.”
Rickards says what was handled by two companies in the past is now handled by one.
“The solution is to rewrite the Mercy contract to get it down to ten minutes’ response time and pay them more; the County won’t do it. Or drop boundaries…and let the closest ambulance respond.”