By Miriam Raftery
November 9, 2018 (Julian) – This week brought good news and bad news for Julian residents fighting to halt a county takeover of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District and save the county’s last all-volunteer fire department.
A citizens’ protest petition seeking to reverse the vote by the Local Agency Formation Agency (LAFCO) to dissolve the fire district obtained enough signatures to qualify for a future ballot, the Registrar of Voters informed advocates this week. That’s a tough hurdle, since the requirement is more than 50% of property owners in the district.
“We did it! We are the only ones in the history of LAFCO to ever get this far!” Lori Foss, a supporter of the petition and survivor of the Cedar and Witch fires, stated in an email to East County Magazine on Election Day.
The date when the measure to save the volunteer fire district will appear on a ballot for voters has not yet been determined.
But the victory is bittersweet. On Election Day, voters failed to approve measure QQ, which would have increased the annual fire fee to help fund the district if it stays independent, since the county has cut off all funds for volunteer firefighting, even shutting off radios used by volunteer firefighters for communications. The measure to increase the fire fee went down by a 56.5% to 43.5% margin.
Foss says some voters didn’t turn over ballots to find QQ, the only item on the reverse side of the last page. Others may have been confused and thought the district was already dissolved, or been swayed by mailers sent by the Cal Fire union that opponents say were deceptive. Some voters may support an independent district but not a fee hike to pay for it, while others may oppose both.
But Foss remains optimistic that with such a high number of signatures from people committed to a vote on saving the district, district residents will ultimately vote to keep the district independent.
The County has argued that absorbing the district into the County Fire Department would make residents safer, with protection by professionally trained Cal Fire firefighters. Those opposed to this point to unmanned stations with more dark days in outlying rural communities since the county takeover began in June, with longer response times along the highway between Ramona and Julian. They fear the consequences if Cal Fire crews are dispatched off the mountain to battle wildfires elsewhere, leaving the Julian area without the trained volunteers who live locally and are most familiar with the backroads.
How could the district fund the higher cost of staying independent without the increased $200 a year fire fee?
First, it would still have existing revenues of $50 a year from property owners, which generates over $385,000 a year. Foss says those advocating for independence have grant writers and are being mentored by a fire agency elsewhere on how to secure grants. Fundraising events are being discussed as well as sponsorships. A future fire fee initiative could also be tried again once the district’s future status is no longer in limbo, if the measure to reverse LAFCO’s decision is passed by voters.
Current Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection Board members who backed the county takeover did not seek reelection, creating two open seats. In Tuesday’s election, two new members won: Michael Menghini and Eva Hatch, both reportedly in favor of keeping the district independent.