By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor
Miriam Raftery, Editor, contributed to this report
Update March 27, 2019: The margin has narrowed slightly but Measure A still leads by 114 votes and a 7.96% margin: yes 53.98%, no 46.02%
March 19, 2019 (Julian) – The County’s last all-volunteer fire department may soon be history. With 1,294 ballots counted tonight, Measure A is passing with 55.56%, the Registrar of Voters reports.
The measure would affirm a decision made last September by the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to abolish the 35-year-old Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District. Fire and ambulance services would be shifted entirely to the County Fire Authority, under the direction of Cal-Fire.
The Registrar’s office will continue to accept ballots until Friday, if postmarked by today. It is unclear how many ballots mailed out have not yet been returned, or whether there could be enough to make up the 145-vote gap (719 to 575).
Cal-Fire firefighters’ union local #2881 posted on Facebook tonight, “Thank you to the Citizens of Julian and Cuyamaca for the opportunity to serve them.” (photo, left)
For backers of the JCFPD who have fought hard to keep their volunteer firefighters, however, the outcome sparked strong emotions.
“It doesn’t look very good right now,” Robert Menghini, president of the volunteer fire protection district. told ECM, adding, “As far as I’m concerned, this was an illegal election.”
Although he did not reveal specific actions the district may take to challenge the election in court, Menghini said that the district will continue to fight any attempts to abolish the district by the County of San Diego.
Tuesday’s election was mandated by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors last December, when LAFCO received enough “protest letters” from local residents to overturn an earlier decision a month earlier to dissolve the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District.
The ball towards the vote started to roll last spring when the former JCFPD board after the board voted three-to-one to file a dissolution application with the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). The board did so only after the County informed the board that it would halt 100% of county funding for the JCFPD if it remained a volunteer district.
None of the board members who voted for dissolution are currently on the board of directors.
At the time of the board’s vote, directors considered the district’s finances and the majority determined that the district did not have the resources to continue. Aida Tucker, JCFPD’s former vice-president, told KPBS TV, "I looked at the budget and saw that there’s no way we were going to be able to make it in the next couple years. We probably would be broke by then without any extra help, so thinking about the community and what they deserve, I decided to go ahead and vote to dissolve the district.”
Because of alleged staffing and response problems, the JCFPD asked the San Diego County Fire Authority for assistance in 2015. At the time, it entered into a two-year contract and the county gave the area extra resources and $105,000 in subsidies and services. However, when the contract expired in Oct. 2017, the board voted to stay independent, which resulted in a good portion of the extra County of San Diego funding disappearing. Because of that, Tucker said it quickly became clear that Julian wouldn't be able to fund a 24/7 response team on its own.
Following resignation of multiple board members, an election last November gave control of the board back to supporters of keeping the district independent. Fundraising efforts have been underway amid a contentious election in which both sides argued that Julian would be safer if their side prevailed.
The stakes are high, with lives and property protection on the line.
Passage of Measure A means Cal-Fire will not shut down two stations in the winter months. Ambulance service will continue to be provided by the CFA, an important point since loss of a county ambulance would have forced the JCFPD to seek a contract with another ambulance provider, if one could be procured. But there will no longer be local volunteers to respond to calls if Cal-Fire or a county ambulance is not available.
Some JCFPD supporters have voiced concerns over the potential for future cuts or dark days at stations, as well as delayed responses to local emergencies if Cal Fire crews are dispatched to battle wildfire elsewhere. Instead of 60 volunteers, with Cal-Fire's aid on wildfires, Julian will now be reliant 100% on Cal-Fire, which JCFD backers say means far fewer firefighters on hand to respond to structure fires.
JCFPD Chief Mike Van Bibber recently recruited dozens of new recruits, 18 of whom recently graduated from JCFPD's training activity to become volunteer firefighters (photo, right).
But those positions will be extinguished if tonight’s vote counts holds, unless a court intervenes.
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