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By Mike Allen

July 7, 2016 (Spring Valley) -- Some four years after contracting out its fire protection to Cal Fire, the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District’s board voted July 6 to begin the process of terminating that relationship.

At the end of a contentious meeting that lasted nearly five hours, the board of directors voted 4-3 to “take measures to return to a stand-alone district, including appointing an ad hoc committee to discuss and return to the board with a plan to terminate its contract with Cal Fire.”

Voting for the motion were Board President Theresa McKenna, as well as Directors Jim Ek, Karrie Johnston, and Mike Vacio. Voting against it were Directors William Kiel, Dan McMillan, and Dave Rickards.

While many residents attending the meeting in a packed, sweltering room at San Miguel’s Spring Valley headquarters expressed appreciation and respect for the work of Cal Fire, most of the speakers, e-mailers and elected directors said it was time for the district to regain local control of its fire fighting operations.

“The funding is available to go back to stand alone,” said McKenna. “If we do not get out of this contract now, we never’s now or never.”

In 2012, the San Miguel board voted unanimously to contract out for its fire protection to Cal Fire in a five and half year contract that expires in 2018. At the time the board voted to contract out fire services to the state’ firefighting agency, the district had seen a marked drop in property tax revenues for at least four years caused by the recession, leading to severe cuts in personnel and the closing of a station in the Dehesa area.

The District said then it was facing a structural budget deficit of $1.7 million and that further necessary cuts would impair its ability to provide adequate fire protection. The only alternative left was to contract for fire protection with the state, the former board determined.

McKenna, who was elected to the board in 2014 on a platform of returning the District to local control, said the former fire chief steered the board with incorrect data that helped support contracting out with Cal Fire. She provided the board with a report that showed the District was losing money, not increasing savings as was promised through its contracted services.

“The District is losing more than $100,000 for each month that passes,” she said.

Kiel said before the District decides to return to local control, it should conduct a more in-depth analysis by an independent consultant to see whether returning to stand-alone status is feasible. A study done by the District’s chief financial officer was insufficient, he said.

“I hope I’m wrong, but the numbers I’ve looked at this time don’t support this. Terminating this contract is not in your best interests,” Kiel said.

Rickards, a former firefighter, said the board was rushing an important decision without getting all the information it needs. “It seems like this had to be done yesterday,” Rickards said. “I see alarm bells and I want to make sure if it’s done, it should be done right.”

Most attending the meeting criticized Cal Fire’s management of its employees, complaining that the lengthy hours firefighters must work is causing serious physical and mental health problems for many families. From an average 56 hours a week when San Miguel was a stand-alone district, Cal Fire demands its firefighters work a 72 hour week, they said.

“Working three 24-hour shifts in a row is taxing on anyone’s mental and physical health, especially with sleep deprivation,” said Ron Quinlan, a Cal Fire Captain with the District.

Photo, left:  Mike Valley, who spoke against returning to stand-alone entity

Most of the 16 e-mails received by the District stated the change to Cal Fire caused many employees to work well beyond their physical limits. “Believe me when I tell you that this schedule is extremely unsafe to be working at such a busy station,” wrote firefighter Cory Powell. “Three days is often too much when you’re getting very little sleep.....I have witnessed my engineer falling asleep at the wheel.”

Yet several e-mailers and speakers told the board they shouldn’t rush to such a major decision without getting more information about changing back to local control.

“Our District is entitled to be better informed as to what benefits or costs this will result in prior to you making any changes,” wrote Stephanie and Dennis Landaal.

Some warned of hidden liabilities that would carry over to the District should it return as a stand-alone. Victor Mosso, a District resident, said regardless of what decision the board makes, the District is facing either $32 million or $50 million in debt, much of it from pension and benefits owed to retired employees.

Those entreaties to delay the move were apparently spurned by the board majority, which voted to set a path for returning the District to total local control once again. Several directors said the board made its intentions to return to stand-alone well known for more than a year, and wasn’t rushing into anything.

“If anything was rushed through, it was the Cal Fire contract,” said Vacio.


Kudos to the SMG Board

This was the right decision for the citizens, the firefighters, and the region. In the face of enormous pressure and misinformation from CalFire and the CF firefighter's union (Local 2881), the board majority held their ground. Now they need to come up with an organization that is able to live within its means. A good first step would be to cancel plans to spend millions in tax dollars to build a fire station in Lakeside. This stupid plan, hatched primarily by outgoing board members during the lame duck session after the last election, was only designed to improve response times to an area not even in the San Miguel district (CSA-115). The site they hastily purchased is in the Lakeside Fire District not 4/5 of a mile from the new fire station (fs1) Lakeside began operating out of full-time in May. The poor decision to locate this station in another fire district reflected how disconnected from regional fire protection San Miguel had become in its affiliation with Cal Fire. Now would be a perfect time to start reestablishing relationships with neighboring agencies (Lakeside) and come up with a better plan to serve the Bostonia and CSA-115 areas.