JULIAN RESIDENTS AGAINST COUNTY TAKEOVER OF FIRE SERVICES WIN VICTORY IN COURT, BUT SETBACK AT LAFCO HEARING

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Battle to save the county's last volunteer fire district now hinges on a protest process that could give voters the final say

By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor

Miriam Raftery, Editor, also contributed to this report.
 

Photo:  Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber, Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District

September 11, 2018 (Julian) -- A group of Julian area residents fighting fire axes-and-hoses against a county takeover of fire and medical first responder services won a firm victory last Thursday in Superior Court. Judge Timothy Taylor ruled to allow a ballot measure to fund future operations for the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District (JCFPD).

Backers of the initiative hoped the ruling would curtail the County of San Diego’s efforts to terminate the JCFPD, the region’s last all-volunteer fire department, and shift fire and ambulance services to the County Fire Authority (CFA) in conjunction with Cal Fire.

But despite Judge Taylor’s ruling, yesterday the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) voted 7-0 to dissolve the district. Residents could still block the takeover through a protest process that’s now been triggered.  Determined opponents of the takeover are gearing up for the fight, arguing that eliminating volunteer firefighters who live in the community will make the area less safe, not safer has had been promised by the CFA.

LAFCO protest meeting set

LAFCO Executive Director Keene Simonds announced that the official “protest meeting” over LAFCO’S decision will be held on October 16, 2018 at a time yet to be announced. (An audio link to LAFCO’s Monday meeting will be posted when it is made publicly available.)

If at that time at least 25 percent of registered voters in the Julian/Cuyamaca area, or 25 percent or more of property owners in the 53,000-acre district, have signed a form indicating they oppose the plans, then a public vote will be scheduled, most likely early next year.

If over 50 percent of the voters and/or property owners sign the forms, then the entire thing will be stopped outright and the volunteer department will continue.

Photo: Opponents of the takeover posted this banner across the street from the new fire station in Julian.

The commission consists of members representing the County of San Diego (Supervisors Bill Horn and Dianne Jacob), City representatives (Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells), City of San Diego representatives (Councilmember Lorie Zapf), Special Districts Representatives (Jo Mackenzie, Vista Irrigation District, and Ed Sprage Olivenhain Municipal Water District), and a Public-at-Large Representatives (Andrew Vanderlaan).

The initiative ruling

Judge Taylor’s order directs San Diego County’s Registrar of Voters, Michael Vu, and the Registrar of Voters, to do all what is necessary to place the voters’ duly qualified Citizen’s Initiative to Repeal and Replace Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District Benefit Fee on the ballot for the November 6, 2018 election.

The ruling came in response to a legal action filed by Gena Burns representing  JCFPD on behalf of the Board of Directors. The ruling came about in an ex parte hearing at the San Diego Superior Court Hall of Justice with Judge Taylor (photo, left) presiding on August 31st.

According to a spokesman for the group, Julian resident Patricia Landis, Judge Taylor expressed concern that the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection Board “inadvertently” failed to follow the law and caused him to sign an order proposed by the petitioner, a writ of mandate, which is an order to a public agency or governmental body to perform an act required by law when it has neglected or refused to do so. Judge Taylor directed his frustration toward Gena Burns, JCFPD's legal counsel, for bringing this matter to Court on the 11th hour, then further stated to Gena Burns that this is a case of malpractice

 

Landis recently said to FOX 5 San Diego, “The more I’ve learned about what the County or CAL FIRE would actually provide to us, it’s pretty distressing.”

We get it, that the days of having a traditional volunteer fire department are over,” said Julian fire Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber. “Times have changed, and we need to change with them. The vision is a combination department. Paid, staffed Paramedic Engine, on duty, at the station, 24/7/365, augmented by a force of trained, unpaid, Volunteer Firefighters.”

Taylor said that he would be writing his own order based on his own research that would inform an appellate court on his reasons for his judgement, should his order be appealed.

To be designated as “Proposition QQ,” the citizen’s initiative would sustain the current JCFPD governance of first responder services by raising the benefit fee on area single family residences from $50 to $200 a year, or an additional $12.50 per month. The additional revenues would begin to be collected in November 2019 on the property tax invoice with one-half due in November and the other half due in January 2020.

Other provisions of “Proposition QQ” include raising the level of Julian-Cuyamaca Fire services to match other agencies, which would include a paramedic staffed engine. Increased revenue realized from the potential initiative would be used to hire a full-time fire chief. It also includes an exemption for low-income homeowners and a cost-of-living adjustment to keep current over time with increasing operating costs. Should the district be ever dissolved, the initiative provides that all benefit will automatically terminate instead of having the monies collected going into the coffers of the County of San Diego to help pay for fire services for all of San Diego’s backcountry.

The new fire chief and the board would be mandated to research and receive revenue from outside sources which have not been pursued by the current Board of Directors, which includes members who have actively worked to dissolve agency.

The ballot measure would need 50 percent plus one vote in order to pass. (The counsel for the JCFPD argued that requiring the citizens’ initiative to have a 2/3 vote to pass would run contrary to a recent California Supreme Court ruling that such a measure could be approved with a simple majority.)

Prop QQ includes language providing that if the district does dissolve, the fire fee increase would not take effect.

History of the conflict

The controversy started in 1984 when Julian-Cuyamaca residents voted to impose an annual benefit fee of $50 per household to provide fire and emergency medical services. In the past 34 years, the cost of vehicles, fuel, payroll, and medical supplies has risen exponentially. During that time, San Diego County had been subsidizing the all-volunteer department and was providing free dispatch services. The subsidy ended earlier this year and the community was faced needing revenues to replace the lost funding.

It was at this time the County looked towards taking over the operations of the fire protection district under the County Fire Authority along with CAL FIRE. But the takeover has meant a lot of confusion and dissension for the historic gold rush town of Julian, which has described itself as the “Mayberry” of San Diego County due to its idyllic rural setting. The Julian area is also famous for attracting a large influx of tourists every year from around the world—making safety of both tourists and residents a key concern.

After much controversy, the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District’s board voted last March to begin dissolving the last volunteer fire department in the county. But doing so has caused a major rift between community factions who want to remain independent and those who think that the town of Julian needs to look to the future and have its first responder services provided by the County and CAL FIRE.

End of an era

“We get it, that the days of having a traditional volunteer fire department are over,” said Julian fire Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber at meeting of concerned residents at a local church (photo, left) on Tuesday, August 28th. “What we have called for in the beginning is for there to be a cooperation between ourselves and CAL FIRE and the County,” he added.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who usually has been a staunch supporter of backcountry residents’ concerns, was subject to very harsh criticism during the meeting. “We asked Dianne Jacob to simply continue the ongoing relationship we have had with the County Fire Authority and CAL FIRE,” Van Bibber said. “She simply said, ‘No.’”

At the LAFCO hearing, both Supervisor Jacob (file photo, right) and Supervisor Bill Horn voted for the dissolution, but Jacob said that she believes the district’s residents should be able to vote on the matter, an action that can now take place, but only if enough residents protest the decision.

According to Van Bibber, when the San Miguel Consolidated Fire District was facing a severe budget shortfall several years ago, CAL FIRE took over operations with a contract clause that San Miguel could opt out of the agreement with notice. San Miguel recently exercised that option and has returned to being independent. “Why aren’t we being given the same option?” Van Bibber said. (San Miguel’s contract was solely with Cal Fire, however, and did not involve the County Fire Authority.)

Since CAL FIRE has largely taken first responder operations and pushed aside services directly provided by the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection Board, Van Bibber and a local citizen activist, Pat Landis, have argued that response times to fire and medical emergencies have suffered greatly.

CAL FIRE has also pulled a paramedic and fire engine assigned to Julian and notified the board that it would be reassigning firefighters from Julian and Cuyamaca stations. Cal Fire has hamstringed other local operations by forbidding certain pieces of large equipment to be operated by the existing local firefighters, Van Bibber and Landis state.

Van Bibber cites a lack of CAL FIRE coordination and resources during a severe firestorm in 2017 in Bangor, located in Butte County, California, after the town’s volunteer fire department was dissolved.  “Fifty-seven homes and three quarters of the businesses in downtown Bangor were destroyed,” he told ECM’s editor. “It took CAL FIRE an hour and a half to assign resources that were all away from the area. The station was empty. If they’d had volunteer, they might still have their community.”

 “We’re Toast”

As reported in late May by East County Magazine, a Jeremiah “Jeremi” Roesler, a Temecula resident who leads the 54-member volunteer force is fearful of what some are calling a “hostile takeover” of the local agency. (photo, left: Julian's volunteer firefighters)

“I’m getting all kinds of questions from the guys, saying, “Well, Chief, what do we do? Because the fire chief’s not answering questions,” Van Bibber said to ECM. As a result of speaking out, Van Bibber, who is unpaid, was placed on administrative leave, and, along with fire Capt. Dave Southcott, were escorted off fire station property by a San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy leaving a volunteer crew without supervision.

A June 15th, 2018 Times of San Diego article cites Julian local volunteer coordinator Lori Foss speaking out to reporters after a County Fire Authority event in El Cajon. She called Cal Fire’s contentions of response times of just over 10 minutes “garbage” and said 15 Cal Fire vehicles in the unincorporated region of 1.5 million acres equated to one truck with two or three firefighters per 107,000 acres. “It’s all B-S.” she stated. The Julian fire station — under the last volunteer fire agency in the area — is dedicated to Julian, she said in the Sheriff’s Department facility in El Cajon. “We can’t wait 30 minutes for Cal Fire…. Someone’s going to die.”

Another concerned resident has said that if Cal Fire takes over, “We’re toast.”

(Photo, right: original JCFD volunteer fire station)

Besides providing emergency services, JCFPD operates a fire academy for aspiring young firefighters, something that would be discontinued if the dissolution were to occur. “There is a totally wrong perception that all of us are fat and old,” Van Bibber. The agency, he says, has been a valuable training opportunity for those interested in fire and medical first responder careers who are in their early 20s.

A month earlier, the JCFPD began the process of dissolution by turning its property and staff (assets valued at over $6 million, per Van Bibber) over to the San Diego County Fire Authority and CAL FIRE’s San Diego Unit, led by Chief Tony Mecham. Advocates of keeping the district independent contend that Mecham was influenced by CAL FIRE Local 2881, the labor union for CAL FIRE firefighters, to make dissolution of the volunteer fire department happen.

The district’s board initially resisted the takeover, until the County threatened to take away all funds from the volunteer fire district, pushing the board to vote for dissolution. That sparked a rift in the community, as well as debate about whether the district could afford to remain independent, in turn giving rise to the ballot initiative to raise funds for the district’s future operations.

But the biggest concern is over public safety. Many Julian and surrounding communities complain of delayed responses when CAL FIRE responds to emergency calls due to factors including crews getting lost, stations closed for “dark days,” CAL FIRE crews sent to fight wildland fires and engines responding from farther away.

A whistleblower who previously worked in emergency response for the district, Karen Keifer, has provided documentation to ECM showing the Ranchita fire station was closed for 15 days in May, but only staffed for 16 days.

(Photo, left: 2012  fire that began at Ranchita swiftly spread to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park; it merged with four other lightning-caused fires to burn over 22,000 acres, illustrating the importance of stopping fires early.)

Records provided by Keifer also show numerous emergency medical responses omitted from data that CAL FIRE’s San Diego Unit Chief Tony Mecham provided to the county. Some of those omitted calls had long response times up to 25 minutes, for example:

June 18, 2017 () Incident on Hwy 78 (Julian CA) 30 

April 8, 2017

Call #008547

1/4 mi past Watering Hole

Julian CA

25 miuntes

April 20, 2017

Call #009547

Last Dollar Trail

Julian CA

25 minutes

June 13, 2017

Call #014232

Incident on Hwy 78

Julian CA

30 minutes

June 18, 2017

Call #014623

Incident on Hwy 78

Julian CA

30 minutes

June 22, 2017

Call #015052

Hwy 78

Julian CA

30 minutes

June 28, 2017

Call #015674

Great So. Overland

Julian CA

28 minutes

 

E-mail records provided to ECM show that concerned Julian residents repeatedly asked Mecham to explain those omissions, and he responded that he would get back to them earlier this summer. ECM has asked Mecham for a response for this article, but has not yet received a reply.

Beyond the numbers and statistics, proponents of an independent fire authority cite instances of allegedly serious problems with CAL FIRE responses to several incidents including:

  • A house which burned to the ground in Shelter Valley because CAL FIRE was out of their service area.
  • A resident in Ranchita who watched his neighbor’s house burn to the ground from his house on a hill as CAL FIRE drove back and forth looking for it.
  • A family whose mother nearly died when CAL FIRE couldn’t find their home on two occasions.
  • At Camp Marston in July 2017, CAL FIRE cancelled their response on a call for a child that needed to be flown by an air medical ambulance at which time the driver communicated to the family, “Good luck! We can’t find you.” (In documents provided to ECM, Chief Mecham has allegedly denied that this incident occurred, but had sent an e-mail to news media saying that “CAL FIRE had difficulty locating this location.)

Some have also praised the volunteer firefighters for their persistence in getting aid to residents in need.  For instance, a senior citizen spoke at the most recent meeting in Julian. He said that he had a stroke four years ago at his home on the outskirts of the town and was left with no speech during the crisis. “I had just gotten a smartphone and I was able to dial 9-1-1. When the operator answered, I couldn’t say anything. I had a problem and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I kept making breathing sounds, hoping that she would understand that I needed help. But she didn’t know whether it was a fire or medical emergency or police because I wasn’t able to speak. I hung up and called again.” The citizen didn’t know whether he was able to get the same operator. “I couldn’t speak again. I couldn’t speak except for making noises with my breath.” He called a third time, “but lo and behold, Julian Fire District personnel showed up at my front door and saw me lying on the floor and got me the medical help I needed,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciated them. They saved my life.”

Foss says she lost her home in the 2003 Cedar Fire due to “a backfire lit by CAL FIRE” in an effort to stop the wildfire’s spread. Then in the 2007 Witch Fire, Foss and a child, along with their horses, were evacuated by Julian’s volunteer firefighters just in the nick of time. “The fire was burning our roof,”  she recalls. Fortunately, the volunteer firefighters stationed in Julian were also able to save her home from burning down. (Photo, right, CAL FIRE: 2003 Cedar Fire)

While supporters of the County takeover have pointed to concerns over the financial resources of the JCFPD, others have raised concerns about CAL FIRE’s resources being stretched thin in recent months with so many wildfires breaking out throughout the state.

CAL FIRE’s Director Ken Pimlott said on September 6th that the agency is about to exceed its budget and needs $234 million more. So far this year, the agency has spent $432 million through the end of August and has only about $11 million left. Pimlott says CAL FIRE would use some of the money to add firefighters and helicopters.

Pimlott pointed out to lawmakers that the California fire season generally picks up in fall, when winds and high temperatures can combine with dried-out forest and grasslands to create dangerous conditions. The Legislature budgets for firefighting based on the historical average costs.

CAL FIRE has requested extra money in seven of the past 10 years, but never this early.

With wildland fires burning through firefighting resources at the fastest pace in state history, Julian area residents have vowed to continue their battle to prevent their historic community’s trusted volunteer fire department from going up in smoke.

In the words of Van Bibber, “we are fighting a tough fight with the odds against us. But in the end we will win. We will be like a Phoenix rising and be stronger than ever.”

Documents:
2018 Citizen's Initiative to Repeal and Replace Benefit Fee.pdf

Ex Parte Petition.pdf

Real Parties Response-Opposite-to 8-30-18 Ex Parte Applic. (final) – pel.pdf


[Proposed] Order.pdf

Audio of August 28, 2018 meeting of the Julian Volunteer Firefighters and Supporters at the Community United Methodist Church of Julian:  http://www.mediafire.com/file/ouud3cf2uxadi26/JulianCitizensMeetingAug28...

Follow Paul Kruze on Twitter and Facebook: @PaulKruzeNews

This story was updated September 16, 2018 with clarification that the judge's ruling on the initiative was in a case filed by the JCFPD board.