By Miriam Raftery
October 21, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) – Seven candidates, including two incumbents, are engaged in a heated contest for three seats on the San Miguel Fire District Board. Three are backed by the firefighters’ union, though not all are firefighters. Four others have formed an alliance to oppose the union-backed candidates; ironically that alliance includes a retired firefighter on the board. The eighth candidate is running independently.
Winners will tackle a budget deficit fueled by foreclosures and falling property tax revenues. Voters defeated a ballot measure that would have increased funding and recently San Miguel shut down an engine company. So the board faces tough decisions.
Should salaries or benefiets for firefighters or administrators be cut? Should the district seek new revenue sources? What balance should be drawn between the needs for fire protection services versus fire prevention and public education? Those are among the questions the new board must address.
ECM sent questionnaires to all candidates and received responses from seven of the eight. Our profiles below are based on those responses, as well as candidates' ballot statements, websites and other sources. All candidates were also invited to submit a photo and website address; we have published all materials provided below.
RICHARD “RICK” AUGUSTINE
Incumbent Rick Augustine has served on the Board for eight years. He has also served on the County Emergency Medical Care Committee and Heartland Fire Training Commission and holds a masters degree in public administration. An East County native, he has lived in the San Miguel district since 1999.
“The greatest challenges is keeping all eight stations open,” he said, adding that $1 million will need to be cut from San Miguel’s budget due to revenue shortfalls. Besides falling property tax revenues, the state took over $1 million from the district with a promise to repay it in three years, said Augustine, adding that the state has not kept its promises and “needs to keep their hands out of local government pockets.”
The district needs to live within its means, he said. “The fat or excess no longer exists in the San Miguel budget. Services are on a basic level with no frills.” He said the district can protect the public without closing fire stations. “However future cuts must come from wages and benefits.” He does not foresee job losses, however.
Augustine pledges “to keep all eight stations open—and your firefighters showing up to all emergencies with outstanding response times.”
He believes in “community service versus union entitlement. The union has hurt the image of the firefighter…Over the last ten years, unions have changed from being a service to the community to `how much can I get from the public.’” Leadership is critical to protect emergency response abilities while balancing those needs with the needs for prevention and public education, he believes. He hopes the union will work with the board to resolve the issue.
Despite the revenue shortfall, Augustine said, “I will not support any new tax.” The only way he foresees restoring the lost engine company is if the union agrees to cut pay by 10%. He also objects to the union asking the Board to dip into reserves to cover pension funding. “At this time, your fire board has held firm on not spending these reserves,” Augustine noted.
“I am running as an independent candidate,” Augustine said of the nonpartisan race, “but I have joined a an alliance of candidates to alert the public to the union attempting to buy an election.” Others in his slate are Jeff Harrison and incumbent Chris Winter.
Jim Custeau did not return our questionnaire. He is endorsed by the San Miguel Firefighters Union as part of their three-man slate. Custeau, a college professor, serves on the Board of Governors of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. “Two of his sons served as reserves with San Miguel and are now professional firefighters, so he has an understanding there,” said Jeff Nelson, a retired firefighter who is running on a slate that includes Custeau and Kandhy Franklin, head of the Fire Safe Council in Crest.
As the Fire Safe Council facilitator for Crest, a community which lost 310 homes in the Cedar Fire, Kandhy Franklin is committed to prevention such devastating losses in the future. She adds, “I was vice president of East County Fire Protection District when they were looking at liquidating and closing down. We managed to get through the same financial hurdles facing San Miguel, only worse. I think I can bring a fair, equitable, balanced approach to solving financial difficulties.”
Franklin says her views differ not only from the incumbents’ views, but also from other members of her own slate, which was endorsed by the firefighters union. She says she didn’t have enough money to fund her own campaign. “So I went and asked support of the firefighters, with the stipulation that they understood I would not be their mouthpiece and would make decisions based on what’s good for them and for the residents we are sworn to protect,” she said. “When East County Fire Protection consolidated with San Miguel, I was on the committee. Firefighters knew what I stood for…and they knew that I was going to do the right thing for everyone, not just for them.”
She believes the size of the board could be reduced from seven members to five. She also believes a board that meets once a month does not need to have its members receive full health benefits including vision and dental, benefits some can access through other jobs or spouse’s benefits. When her rural district ran into financial troubles, she said she made a motion to rescind stipends while firefighters were negotiating and” working for less than minimum wage putting their lives on the line.”
San Miguel’s full-time firefighters are substantially better paid, and Franklin differs from the union in that she believes “pension reform is absolutely needed” to balance the budget.
She wants the district to “get creative” about finding new revenue streams. She has some experience in that regard. “I have written a grant for the community of Crest to create a fuel break,” she said. She has previously helped organize old-fashioned fundraisers such as a spaghetti dinner and wants to see each station at San Miguel get involved in raising funds. She called for a team approach. “Why can’t we do a concert or benefit, use Lakeside Rodeo stands?” she asked. “You just have to believe it’s possible.” While she wants to pursue other revenues such as those just listed, she noted that she was successful in the past at helping to persuade 73% of voters to support a $250 fee per household, though the situation was even more dire at the time. “We were looking at losing our fire department,” she recalled. “Creativity and thinking outside the box are important.”
As a fire victim, she said she knows the importance of fire safety and “having firefighters come to your door” when needed. She believes it is important to retain both fire protection and a prompt response time, as well as fire prevention and fire-safe education on items such as fire-safe construction and the importance of defensible space. “Probably 90% of our calls are medical aid,” she noted, “so timely manner of response is paramount. But having kids be prepared and understand stop, drop and roll are lifesaving techniques.”
She is concerned over the loss of an engine but wants to study response times to access the actual impact, noting that there are mutual aid agreements with other districts. She hopes the district will ultimately be in a position to restore the lost engine company.
She believes that the budget can be cut to “bare bones” without laying off firefighters or jeopardizing public safety. “But you have to be willing to compromise,” she said, adding that she is approachable and will listen to all ideas.
She describes herself as “passionate” about her candidacy and adds, “I just want to be judged based on what I’ve done and what the people feel I can do. Organizations have a voice, but the public doesn’t have a voice right now…That’s who I want to be a voice for.”
An active member of the Rancho San Diego Fire Safe Council, realtor Jeff Harrison says the fire district community is “very near and dear to my heart.” He believes his experience as a business owner, Fire Safe volunteer and board member for the Rancho San Diego Chamber of Commerce provide him with the business acumen needed to make choices that are ethically and fiscally responsible, while consulting all stakeholders.
“I am running because I am concerned about the welfare of our fire department,” he said. “Tough decisions need to be made and I am not afraid to make them.”
Harrison said firefighters are “critical to our communities” and that he respects firefighters for providing frontline defense in saving lives, home and property. “Our community deserves solutions that keep the most qualified firefighters, emergency response personnel, and administrators while also finding creative solutions to not cutting services, equipment or staff,” he said.
He is concerned that “the union is trying to stack the deck against the community by promoting candidates who are favorable to what the union wants,” and likened the situation to “wolves guarding the hen house” willing to cut fire-safe education and management in order to provide more benefits and wages to union members.
“San Miguel’s motto is `Serve-Educate-Respond’ while it appears the union attitude is to only respond,” he noted. “What happened to community service like the successful Fire Expo?” He criticized firefighters for not being willing to volunteer at a recent fire station open house, where Harrison volunteered to cook up pancakes for a fundraiser to benefit fire-safe programs. “I have been told that volunteering for community functions is not an option for our firefighters because of union mandates,” he added.
Harrison praised firefighters for doing a “great job in meeting the needs of the community” but added that a $1.8 million budget shortfall poses challenges. “Response times could increase,” he said, adding that station closures and elimination of jobs could also occur if a strong, fiscally responsible fire protection district is not maintained.
He aims to continue the levels of service “as best we can and to explore all options and alternatives to replace lost revenues.” Asked whether he might support putting a new fire tax or fee proposal on the ballot, he replied, “I would not be opposed to a new effort, if I believed the new tax was in the best interest of the residents and business owners.”
He does not foresee restoring the lost engine company with the current budget. “I foresee just the opposite; we could lose another if the current trends continue.” (San Miguel currently has eight stations throughout East County. )
Harrison believes “prevention is the key.” He added, “The cost to teach our children and inform our communities of the dangers associated with our area is far less expensive than fighting a fire. I would look to find grants available for education and prevention of fires.” He praised fire prevention programs for educating the community, naming a children’s education program, fire extinguisher training classes, station open houses and the annual Fire Expo as examples.
Harrison said he can’t make an informed decision on pension reforms, wages or benefits until he has access to full information as a board member and can research the issue. “If they are excess, then let’s take a look at it. If the money is not there, then adjustments need to be made.”
He opposes layoffs of firefighters except as a last resort, but noted, “reduction in firefighters could be harmful to our region, but bankruptcy of our district would be even more devastating.”
Asked about his political philosophy, Harrison said he was registered as an independent until recently. “I have leaned Republican most of the time, but never agreed totally with Democrats or Republcians. I think both sides have great ideas and we need to make things right.” He is endorsed by Asemblyman Joel Anderson, Assembly candidate Rick Powell, former La Mesa Councilman Barry Jantz, La Mesa Chamber of Commerce president Mary England, and the Rancho San Diego-Jamul Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
Harrison and his wife, Valerie (president of the Rancho-Jamul of Commerce) are long-time residents in the community. “This is OUR community’s fire department, not the union’s,” Harrison concluded. “I don’t feel the union should be dictating the board on decisions regarding pay, benefits, etc…We cannot let our district be controlled by special interests.” He pledged to be fair, transparent and unbiased. “Voters, do you want a fire board that sits at opposite sides of the table wasting precious time rehashing old problems,” he asked, “or do you want someone new who can become a part of the success by helping make significant contributions for safer communities tomorrow working together?”
Harrison’s website is www.votejeffharrison.com.
Kelley has worked as a reporter and weatherman for Channel 10 and Channel 6. He is running out of concern for the district’s fiscal condition. “I don’t want to see us be like the City of San Diego and be a billion dollars in debt, or have to close a station,” he said.
Kelley said “I love firefighters, and know that they are brave individuals. We have to take care of them…but where I differ from some board members that are union-backed is I feel the firefighters and the entire organization have to live within their means.” He said that he used to believe firefighters were the best candidates to serve on fire boards, but learned that firefighters union members tend to be “looking out for their own self-interest. Those red signs are paid for by the union,” he said of three of his opponents’ signs.
Regarding the closure of an engine company, Kelley said, “I’ve learned they’d really have to do that, if the firefighters would have taken a small cut in pay, even temporary.” He also suggested that firefighters’ pensions are among the best in California and that like other citizens taking pay cuts, firefighters should be willing to make some sacrifices for the health of the district.
“I’m an advocate for the taxpayer,” said Kelley, a native San Diegan who describes himself as “a very strong conservative Christian Republican.” He added, “Raising sales tax like they are doing in San Diego to try and keep police and fire working is the wrong way to do it. The people I’ve talked to, they are saying we all need to do more with less.” That said, he added that he would consider putting a fire funding measure on the ballot—if firefighters also agreed to take a reduction “so that they would have the people’s respect.”
He supports a two-tier pension system. Kelley notes that firefighters used to retire “at age 50 and not live past age 55 or 56,” thus were given generous retirement packages. But with improvements in safety equipment and breathing apparatus, firefighters now live to around age 70, he said. “The board has to look into non-union guided alternatives,” he said, adding, “Look at what the military receives compared to a firefighter…Can you compare a six-month deployment against working 10 full days per month as a firefighter?”
He also wants to make sure that there is a balance between fire protection and fire prevention. Kelley further believes budget cuts at the state and levels have further put public safety at risk locally. “Sure it is, because there are less firefighters per capita in San Diego than any place in the state…They are already doing more with less.” He added, “If anybody has a workable solution, I’m here to hear it.”
Kelley’s website is www.voteforgarykelley.com.
“I have over 20 years experience as a CFO (chief financial officer), responsible for operating and capital budgets considerably in excess of the district’s,” said Mitrovich. “I bring to the table a strong business background and a proven track record supporting our community.”
He has served on a local planning group as an elected member, where he supported the San Miguel Fire District’s training facility and a new Sheriff’s substation. He is also former president and a current board member of the Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association.
“I am running for this office to represent our residential and business owners’ safety concerns, while supporting fiscal responsibility. I am not beholden to any group or special interests,” he said. He views community safety and budget challenges as key challenges. To assure no loss of fire protection services or unfair cost burden on residents and businesses, he believes San Miguel Fire’s board of directors should “demonstrate to the public that there is a true financial emergency by eliminating the $102,028 that the district’s taxpayers now pay for medical insurance to the seven elected directors.”
He said that both fire prevention and fire protection are “an absolute necessity.” However he opposes any new effort to get a tax measure on the ballot, yet had no solution for restoring the lost engine company “until I can fully get my hands around the district’s operations.” He believes public employees’ salaries and wages should be in-line with the private sector.
He also supports outsourcing. “Along with the district’s Chief, Augie Ghio, and the County Fire Chiefs’ Association, I support cost saving measures recently voted unanimously in favor of by the Board of Supervisors,” Mitrovich said. Those measures would include “a model where the County outsources fire functions—suppression, training, purchasing, fuel removal, dispatch and repairs—to the state’s Cal Fire.” He also supports use of a new stipend program to augment career firefighters with better-trained volunteers” and “a simplified interagency command structure” as well as consolidation of functions and later, agencies.
Mitrovich would also support formation of an independent citizens’ committee to analyze the proposed budget and obtain information about the district operations, with a goal of making recommendations to reduce or eliminate an anticipated budget deficit. He also called for 100% transparency including posting complete salary schedules.
He said he has not solicited any endorsements. “I support a balanced board, not one dominated by special interests.” Mitrovich describes himself as a “fiscal conservative” who is middle-of-the-road on most other issues. “I support common sense,” he said.
“I’m the only one who is a firefighter,” Nelson said. “I retired after 35 years with San Miguel Fire. I’m running for the board because I feel with my knowledge of the district that I can better serve the public. I’m the person who can see the cuts that need to be made or expenditures that should be made, and those that shouldn’t.”
Nelson believes that what people hate about government is “seeing their fees increased, the bureaucracy increased, and the service to the community reduced—and that’s what’s happened over the last three years. This district tried to enact a benefit fee, they’ve increased the number of staff positions and non-suppression positions, and at the same time shut down an engine company.”
He hopes to see the engine company placed back in service when the economy improves and property taxes rebound. “In the meantime, I would like to see a lot of cuts in administrative and non-essential services.”
San Miguel Fire District has been successful at getting substantial grant funding. But Nelson counters, “The grants are often things we can’t afford.” For instance, he said a multi-million dollar training facility approved through grant funding will add hefty maintenance costs to the district’s budget.
Asked about balancing prevention and protection, the veteran firefighter replied, “The reason people start a fire district is to have a fire engine respond to their house in case of emergency. No amount of prevention will be the same as an engine at your door when you need it.” He pointed out that “80% of our calls are emergency medical—and no amount of prevention is going to change that.”
Does he believe that public safety was jeopardized by shutting down an engine company? “Absolutely…and what’s greatly affected is medical emergency response.”
He wants to put pressure on the County Board of Supervisors, if elected, to spend some Prop 172 funds on fire protection. “California taxpayers pay 1% of sales tax for Prop 172. It was passed with the idea that half would go to fire, but in San Diego all of it goes to the Sheriff and D.A.’s office,” Nelson noted.
He disagrees with those who want to cut firefighters’ wages. “Our firefighters just took a 9% pay cut,” he noted.
Nelson also takes issue with those who want to slash pensions for firefighters. “I think those people don’t understand the public employees’ retirement system. Our system is fully funded,” said Nelson, a retiree. “There is a commitment to people who have placed their life on the line for 30, 35 years. If there are people who work shorter periods of time and don’t work in life-threatening positions, there is a different situation. But just as we honor and understand those who serve in the military and put their lives on the line for our country, we need to understand that people, firefighters, put their lives on the line on a daily basis. Two of the engineers that worked for me died within five years after retiring,” he said, adding that both died of heart and lung conditions related to their careers as firefighters. “It’s considered the most dangerous occupation.”
Nelson believes that expenses at the district can be cut further without laying off firefighters or jeopardizing public safety . But he concluded, “I do not feel there needs to be any more cuts in fire suppression.”
He criticized an opponent, Kelley, who Nelson said has suggested replacing professional firefighters with reserves. “We have no reserves show up on holidays and weekends,” Nelson said.
He praised his fellow slate members. “Khandy Franklin has been very active in the Crest Community on the Fire Safe Council and as a community volunteer. I’d like to see more involvement from that area,” he said. He also believes Custeu, a college instructor, understandings firefighting issues since two of his sons were reserves with the district.
Endorsed by the San Miguel Firefighters, Nelson calls himself “a fiscal conservative and a social Libertarian.” He has lived in the district virtually his whole life and raised his family here, he said, adding that he lives near Crest and also owns a home in Rancho San Diego. “The key issue to me is knowledge and understanding of the fire district—and I don’t think anyone else can compare to my 35 years of experience.”
Incumbent board member Chris Winter says the board has worked together to be fiscally responsible and take into consideration the needs of the entire district.
Winter said that he’s a career firefighter who knows the operations side as well as the budget process—factors he considers important to assure safety of residents and swift responses by firefighters to emergencies. He holds an associate of science degree in fire science as well as a bachelor’s degree in business.
Although he is a union member, he was not endorsed by the union in this race. “I, along with another board member (both active firefighters and union members in a neighboring city) was the target of complaints to both the international and state firefighter unions in an effort to pressure us during the existing labor negotiations,” Winter stated, adding that the union also indicated plans to picket his home and workplace, but that those actions have thus far not occurred.
He is endorsed by the Republican Party of San Diego. He says he is one of four candidates who have similar fiscal philosophies (along with Augustine, Harrison and Kelley). “Do what is best for the citizens of the District. This may not be what the union wants to hear; therefore organized labor is not backing us,” he noted.
He believes that firefighters are paid “fair wages and have good benefits. If you offer a competitive wage and benefit package, you retain good employees and that saves dollars in recruitment and training costs.” Asked whether expenses can be cut further without laying off firefighters or jeopardizing public safety, he responded, “It has to be! If it comes to having to make more cuts to save firefighters on engines, then the board would have to prioritize every dollars spend and cut as far as needed. We cannot lose any more.”
Winter said the union has a fiscal “plan” that does not match the current board. He noted that revenues are down over $3 mlllion for the distirct and projected to fall another $1.2 next year due to declining property values, short sales and foreclosures. “This does put public safety at risk. It has drastically reduced the training and equipment,” he said, calling loss of Engine 15 “tragic. It is the highest priority for me when the economy recovers. An engine company costs about $1.5 million,” he added. “We need to recover that revenue from an increase in property values.”
He wants a balance between response, prevention and education. “We can decrease our responses by keeping prevention and education intact, at some level,” he noted. Winter does not support any effort to get a new fire tax measure on the ballot at this time. “The District’s residents have already spoken loud and clear,” he said.
“We have provided a number of things, including paramedics on all district units, AED program, and leadership in accepting grants totaling over $2.3 million, providing the district’s citizens with things that our budget normally would not allow,” Winter said. “These include the community outreach program, Before the Threat, the fire safety burn trailer, and numerous safety and firefighting equipment.”
He would like to see firefighters help do fire prevention inspections, which he noted “also helps them know what is in their area that they protect.”
The budget has been decreasing for four years, posing the biggest challenge. “We have cut, cut, cut and we are still looking at every line item and continually reassessing every dollar spent,” Winter said.
“I am running once again because I have an interest in providing the best possible response, prevention and education to the residents of the district,” Winter concluded.
Editor's note: Due to an editing error, Mr. Mitrovich's statement in favor of outsourcing some fire functions was inadvertently attributed to another candidate. We have corrected the wording and regret the error.