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By August Ghio, Chief

San Miguel Fire Department

June 11, 2009 (San Diego's East County)--It is a given, the current global economic crisis is or will effect every individual, every household and every organization. The San Miguel Fire Protection District is no different. Maybe a little different, our budget, primarily from property tax dollars, is utilitized to save lives and property. The District’s budget shortfall has hit a critical level. As we forecast fire dangers it is our duty and obligation to make you aware of how our current budget shortfall will affect our ability to respond. Since this is your Fire District we turn to you our property owners for direction. That direction will come in the form of a yes or no vote for a Benefit Assessment Fee. Here are the facts.

Our estimated budget gap for FY 2010 is $1.75 million. That is an increase of $616,000 from our original projection. From a percentage perspective we will have a minus 6.45% property tax revenue in FY 2010 from our FY 08/09 property tax revenue. Additionally, earlier this month the citizens of the State of California resoundingly defeated Propositions 1A through 1E. This very likely will trigger the Governor to enact the State’s ability to borrow 8% of local government’s property tax revenues. For our District this would be an additional $1.3 million revenue loss for FY 2010.

Accounting nuances aside, we need to do much more with much less. The Benefit Assessment Fee will help us stop the hemorrhaging. At a property fee of $41.94 per occupancy the District will generate $1.3 million. This infusion of funds will help the District maintain rapid response times, better protect homes from devastating fires, prevent the closure of an Engine Company (nine firefighters) and other reductions in direct services.

This is a crisis we have been working to stave off for months. Core services and supplies are up by 2.7%. Run volume continues to increase by 200 incidents per year (over a 10 year average). In response, in this fiscal year alone the District has executed $800,000 in budget reductions. How? In part:

–Training Captain eliminated

–Operations Battalion Chief not hired

–Part-Time Fire Inspector eliminated

–Part-Time Clerical eliminated

–Services and supplies reduced

–Contracts revised for better pricing

In addition there are no pay raises. The District’s work force voluntarily gave back $200,000 in benefits in FY 2009. That’s one million dollars in reduced spending. Now What?

Additional cuts will seriously affect direct service to our residents. Our employees will begin negotiating their contracts where we will be discussing other ways to reduce costs to try to shore up direct services. We live in a high fire risk area. In fact, there is a swath of 169,000 acres of brush (some fifty years old) leading from Mount Laguna right into our District.

A Benefit Assessment Fee will allow us, under our current set of circumstances, to maintain the level and quality of service our residents are accustomed to experiencing. When the temperature increases, the humidity decreases and the winds kick up, we could issue a “Red Flag” warning which is an indication that extreme danger is possible and is a warning to be prepared. In some ways: our Benefit Assessment is the same. It is a warning to our residents and an opportunity for them to tell us what they want. What level of protection they demand. <>

We, like every other household, understand the fact many people are suffering. Our request of $41.94 per occupancy is an understanding of that. Some have suggested we ask for at least twice that much, but we emphasize we are not looking for property owners to give their Fire District a cure all. Instead, we need to maintain a current level of service as we look for new and innovative ways to adjust to a changing world. For the typical home owner this Assessment equates to only 11 cents per day.

Firefighting is a dangerous labor intensive effort. A career of firefighting takes a toll on the men and women who serve. Job related deaths are three times higher than most careers. Firefighters suffer an increased risk for several cancers when compared to the general public. Each year 45 percent of on-duty fire fighter deaths are caused by heart disease. Simply put Firefighters, when compared to the general population, die sooner. Over the decades through the negotiating and contract process firefighters have earned a strong benefit and retirement program.

Critics of the Benefit Assessment Fee say the District can somehow unilaterally cut wages and benefits. The District can’t. What we can say is our Board of Directors and our employees will enter the next contract phase with a clear view of this economic crisis. The Benefit Assessment Fee will allow us to stabilize our fiscal forecast as we adjust and adapt to a changing world. The Benefit Assessment Fee will allow the District to provide our residents with the best possible level of fire protection, as we work to provide the most efficient, well equipped team possible, at a reasonable and fair cost.

Our request for funds includes strong fiscal controls and accountability, including the requirement that all funds can only be used for local fire protection, suppression and emergency services. In addition annual financial audits of the expenditures are required. We are not telling our property owners how to vote, but doing our level best to provide every stakeholder with a realistic forecast.

Our pledge to our residents remains the same. Every San Miguel Firefighter will do his or her best to wage their war against disaster with the tools our community provides. There was a day firefighters faced the possibility of death by fighting a fire with little more than axes and buckets to transport water. That same spirit exists today. Residents trust us with their lives; we hope they trust us to treat their investment in public safety with caution and respect.

The opinions expressed in this editorial reflect those of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. If you wish to submit an editorial for consideration, contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org.

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