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LAFCO forwards county fire agency plans to supervisors


Last updated 12/20/2007 at Noon

San Diego County’s Local Agency Formation Commission directed LAFCO’s executive officer to transmit the terms and conditions of the proposed fire department reorganization to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

LAFCO’s 7-1 vote December 3, with County Supervisor Bill Horn in opposition, accepted the draft terms and conditions of reorganization recommended by a subcommittee appointed in May to address various issues such as property tax, contract, and labor transfer. The subcommittee will be retained until Phase I of the reorganization is ratified, and when all Phase I reorganization conditions including identifying a source of stable funding are completed the reorganization will return to LAFCO for ratification.

“It is important to move forward,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “Every single San Diegan in this region has an issue in this whether it’s fire or emergency medical.”

While high-profile firestorms such as the October 2003 and October 2007 wildfires call attention to the needs of small fire departments, most fire department calls are for emergency medical service rather than for fire suppression and most fire suppression calls are for single-structure fires, vehicle fires, or small grass fires. “This is a day-to-day operation thing to make our county more whole than it is right now,” said LAFCO chair Andy Vanderlaan.

Although the LAFCO legal process for the reorganization began in February 2005 with approval from the Board of Supervisors to initiate a change, reorganization plans are over a decade old. Several current fire districts are the result of consolidations including the North County (Fallbrook and Rainbow), San Miguel (Spring Valley and Grossmont-Mt. Helix), East County (Crest and Bostonia), and San Diego Rural (numerous smaller agencies) fire departments.

In 1999 LAFCO created the Task Force on Fire Protection Services Funding after issues regarding funding for annexed territory or consolidations led to a desire to address funding and level of service needs for all fire departments. The task force was eventually renamed the Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services and now covers issues other than funding. The task force had provided considerable input for the organizational restructuring plans.

The original proposal was to consolidate all 28 fire protection agencies in the county’s unincorporated area along with the unserved areas (territory served by a volunteer fire department but not by a public agency is legally considered an unserved area), but the LAFCO reorganization process also includes a period to submit a substantially similar proposal which may be approved by the LAFCO board. The San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association and the San Diego County Fire Districts Association submitted such a proposal to divide the reorganization into two phases, incorporating 17 of the agencies and the unserved territory in Phase I to provide service to the unserved and most underserved areas while evaluating the remaining agencies in Phase II to determine whether or not consolidation is the most beneficial option. In August 2005 the LAFCO board approved the substantially similar proposal.

At LAFCO’s December 2005 meeting the board received a macro report which presented a range of options for providing structural fire protection and emergency medical service in the unincorporated areas. Seven options were presented, and the LAFCO board selected a two-phased approach with preference toward the three options providing paid personnel at every station. In February 2006 LAFCO approved the scope of work for a Phase I micro report which covered governance, transition and implementation strategy, operations, fiscal management, capital assets, and miscellaneous issues.

The studies were not affected by the Board of Supervisors’ decisions in September 2005 and June 2006 to provide $8.5 million for contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to augment service in areas not adequately protected. The county supervisors have also committed $200,000 in Community Development Block Grants each year for needs of the fire service and an additional $200,000, derived from the savings of refinancing the county’s Otay prison, into a trust fund for fire agencies. (Although Community Development Block Grant funds are restricted to eligible neighborhoods, the trust fund awards have no such restriction.)

The County of San Diego has also sponsored Senate Bill 806, authored by Dennis Hollingsworth, which would appropriate up to $40 million each year for fire protection services in unserved or underserved areas through a shift in property tax distribution. SB 806 has currently become a two-year bill which will be considered in 2008.

The initial Phase I agencies included four municipal water districts which also provide fire protection and emergency medical services; the reorganization would have retained water and sanitation functions but not emergency service functions for the Ramona, Mootamai, Pauma, and Yuima districts. The study determined, however, that under state law the removal of individual powers from multipurpose special districts is not authorized. (If a municipal water district voluntarily relinquishes a latent power, the reorganization could include that territory, although none of the districts chose to submit resolutions requesting inclusion by the July 2007 deadline.)

Seven additional agencies sought to be excluded from reorganization or deferred to Phase II. All seven of those agencies have voter-approved assessments and meet the substantially similar proposal’s service levels. Exclusion of those agencies from Phase I also reduces the risk of a successful protest petition. The dissolution of an agency includes a protest petition provision which for a LAFCO-initiated proposal would trigger an election if ten percent of the number of registered voters or landowners in any district signed the petition. For districts of fewer than 300 registered voters, the signature requirement is 25 percent. A protest election would then take place for the entire proposed consolidated area.

On May 7 LAFCO voted 6-1 to approve consolidating six fire agencies and the unserved area for Phase I and to authorize latent powers for fire protection and emergency medical services within a zone of the county’s special district covering regional communications. The entire creation of the reorganized fire service agency will return to the LAFCO board for ratification after finalization of details transferring property tax revenue while maintaining expenditures from voter-approved assessments within the levy collection area.

The May 7 vote also created a four-member subcommittee to work with LAFCO staff members on the various fiscal and other ministerial issues. The May 7 action also allowed agencies which had requested exclusion to reconsider participation, and that was the case with County Service Area No. 113, which covers San Pasqual.

In addition to CSA No. 113, the six agencies which would be consolidated in Phase I are the East County, Pine Valley, and San Diego Rural fire protection districts and the County Service Areas serving Boulevard, Campo, and Mount Laguna. The new agency, which will be called the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority, will also include 943,876 acres of unserved territory, although volunteer fire departments will retain their autonomy and are expected to work together with the paid firefighters covering those areas. The total area of the Phase I consolidated agency is 1,425,814 square miles, or approximately two-thirds of the county’s unincorporated area.

Although the fire district would have no legal power over tribal lands, Indian reservations were included in the initial boundaries to simplify the legal description. The chair of the Campo Kumeyaay Nation requested that tribal land be excluded, and the LAFCO board approved that exclusion, which will not affect existing mutual aid agreements involving public agencies and tribal fire departments. Most reservations have their own fire departments or contract with existing agencies.

“The reorganization has undergone a series of modifications since it was first introduced to LAFCO,” said Shirley Anderson, LAFCO’s chief of policy.

The terms and conditions developed by the subcommittee include a minimum service level of Basic Life Support with three personnel on-duty, although an Advanced Life Support level is preferred. The fire agency would utilize both paid firefighters and volunteers.

Other terms and conditions involved assigning liabilities and assets of the dissolved districts to the regional agency, requiring separate accounting for each assessment fund which would be transferred to the new agency, transferring career employees and employee rights, establishing a formal relationship between the agency and volunteer fire departments, and creating a regional advisory board along with community advisory groups and fiscal oversight councils.

“The majority of the conditions have been satisfied,” Anderson said.

The conditions also include that no existing agency loses assets or service due to the reorganization. “What we’ve put together is a plan to improve the services of the county and not at the expense of better-funded agencies,” said LAFCO executive director Mike Ott.

The consolidation, however, is conditioned upon a secure funding source. The subcommittee also updated cost estimates and determined a total annual cost of $25,692,140 at the Basic Life Support level and $26,499,116 for Advanced Life Support service. Even with the $8.5 million the Board of Supervisors currently spends on an enhancement program, the shortfall would total $12,971,871 for BLS and $13,724,847 for ALS. The figures do not include approximately $37 million in capital costs, mostly for station upgrades.

“Even though there’s only one piece that missing, it’s a rather big one,” Vanderlaan said.

“Anything that we look at to fill this gap must be of a permanent nature,” Anderson said. “It will not be brought back to this body for final ratification until funding is in place.”

Funding possibilities include a parcel tax or a sales tax increase, both of which would require a two-thirds vote. The Board of Supervisors rather than LAFCO would initiate any tax increase proposal. “There are no details that have been worked out on this,” Anderson said.

LAFCO counsel William Smith indicated that because the governing board is the countywide Board of Supervisors, any sales tax would be countywide.

“We have not expressed a preference for any one method of financing,” Ott said.

LAFCO will determine if the subsequent Board of Supervisors action is in accordance with the May approval. “What we are trying to do today is move this out of LAFCO,” Ott said.

Sending the issue to the Board of Supervisors provides a specific proposal for which a funding source is needed. “Sustainable ongoing funding needs to be in place. We need this to move forward so we can find that funding,” said David Burke of the La Mesa Fire Department, who is the current president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.

Burke also noted that a county agency would provide better mutual aid than the current system. “Part of this is about reciprocity,” he said. “Currently in the unincorporated areas of the county there is not reciprocity in service.”

San Diego County Fire Districts Association president Darrell Jobes, who is the fire chief of the Alpine Fire Protection District, noted that reciprocity exists between fire districts and cities but is one-way past district boundaries. “We need to better prepare at the local level,” he said.

The volunteer fire departments would complement the county agency. “If anything volunteers would be more important for fire operations,” Ott said.

The Phase I agencies have a combined total of approximately 400 volunteer firefighters. Volunteer fire department personnel also include fundraisers, non-profit organization boards, mechanics, radio operators, and public information officers.

One of the advantages of a County Service Area (whose governing board is the San Diego County Board of Supervisors but which has an advisory board) over an independent special district (in which board members are directly elected) is that a County Service Area is not restricted from contracting with a private volunteer company for fire protection services while the state’s Public Contract Code specifically prohibits a fire protection district from contracting with volunteer companies. The CSA rather than LAFCO will determine the operational issues of the agency. “We don’t know how the delivery (of service) would be organized,” Anderson said.

Options for service include contracting with volunteer fire departments, contracting with neighboring fire districts or city fire departments, and contracting with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It does open up to local competition the ability to compete for local control,” said San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District fire chief August Ghio, who is also the vice president of both the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association and the San Diego County Fire Districts Association. “If local areas can vie for that, it’s important.”

Ghio noted that only a small number of fire department calls are for wildfires. “What this plan does is improve the daily operation of fire, rescue, and emergency medical services,” he said.

“This issue really has a lot to do with structure protection and EMS protection,” said Scott Walker, who spoke as an individual rather than in his capacity as the Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District fire chief. “It’s very clear in both Federal and state law that the responsibility for structural fire protection falls within the realm of local government.”

Boulevard’s fire station is often unoccupied. “The emergency medical services are not being delivered because there’s no one there,” said Mary Schoepfer, a former member of the CSA No. 112 (Boulevard) advisory board. “We need to get to the next step. We need to erase the (boundary) lines.”

Other than Horn, whose supervisorial district includes five of the six agencies which expressed a desire for exclusion from Phase I, the only opposition at the December 3 hearing was expressed by Tom Gardner, who represented the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighters. “There’s a lot of assumptions about MOUs and the right to transfer employee contracts,” Gardner said. “It’s an issue that should have been considered.”

Gardner noted that if volunteers exceed a certain amount of hours in a year they are considered employees and are subject to benefit obligations.

“The part about the labor issue is unanswered and should have been left out,” Gardner said. “The employees have a right to know where their funding is going to be.”

Jack Griffiths of Bonsall suggested tying revenue for the new district to insurance values of the properties and challenged property owners to determine the value of a tax for fire protection. “The individual owner values his property at so much,” Griffiths said. “Insurance costs more than compensate for the cost of your fire department or your fire resources.”

Horn believes that the additional money should be used for more equipment rather than for an expansion of paid personnel. “We do need to spend more money, but if I’m going to spend more money I would like some more equipment,” he said.

Horn mentioned air tankers and additional helicopters among the equipment he desires. “I think there’s a lot of stuff that we need to be more effective, but we’re always going to have fires,” he said. “I just don’t think this is going to be the solution.”

Poway City Council member Betty Rexford supported forwarding the non-unanimous subcommittee recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. “I’m not supporting taxes for cities or things like that,” she said. “We’re trying to find a way to start negotiations.”

Del Mar mayor Carl Hilliard noted that fires not only burn land and structures but require fire department resources. “We’re already paying,” he said. “The issue is can we reduce that bill?”


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