Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

LAFCO approves first phase of fire agency reorganization plan

San Diego County’s Local Agency Formation Commission approved the reorganization of territory not served by a public fire department into the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority.

A unanimous LAFCO board vote October 6 approved the initial reorganization of approximately 942,000 acres into the regional fire department, authorized latent powers for structural fire protection and emergency medical services within service-specific zones of an existing County Service Area, adopted a sphere of influence for the latent powers zone of County Service Area No. 135, and directed LAFCO staff and/or consultants to initiate a Municipal Service Review of structural fire protection and emergency medical services within the unincorporated portion of the county.

“I certainly think that this is the first step,” said Board of Supervisors chairman Greg Cox, who is also an alternate commissioner on the LAFCO board. “It will provide the service to those areas which do not have fire service right now.”

The LAFCO legal process for the reorganization began in February 2005 with approval from the Board of Supervisors to initiate a change.

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 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.

In May 2007 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.

That 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 were to be consolidated in Phase I were the East County, Pine Valley, and San Diego Rural fire protection districts and the County Service Areas serving Boulevard, Campo, and Mount Laguna.

The East County Fire Protection District has since merged with the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District, which will be considered for inclusion in the county agency in Phase II, so the ECFPD land was removed from Phase I following LAFCO approval of the consolidation June 2.

The May 2007 LAFCO approval also called for the inclusion of 943,876 acres of unserved territory into the new agency, although volunteer fire departments would retain their autonomy and are expected to work together with the paid firefighters covering those areas.

The total area in the Phase I plan exceeds 1,400,000 square miles, or approximately two-thirds of the county’s unincorporated area.

The consolidation, however, was conditioned upon a secure funding source. The most recent cost estimates determined a total annual cost of $23.8 million for Advanced Life Support service (the withdrawal of the East County Fire Protection District from the proposal reduced the previous estimate of $26.5 million).

The figures do not include approximately $37 million in capital costs, mostly for station upgrades.

In December 2007 the LAFCO board directed LAFCO’s executive officer to transmit the terms and conditions of the proposed Phase I fire department reorganization to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

LAFCO’s 7-1 vote in December, with County Supervisor Bill Horn in opposition, accepted the draft terms and conditions of reorganization recommended by a subcommittee appointed in May 2007 to address various issues such as property tax, contract, and labor transfer.

The reorganization was to return to LAFCO for ratification when all Phase I reorganization conditions, including identifying a source of stable funding, were completed.

On January 29, 2008, the supervisors voted 5-0 to receive the proposal along with other information from the LAFCO meeting and to direct the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to evaluate the reorganization plan and input and report back to the board within 120 days with recommendations, including the possibility of a hybrid plan.

On June 25 the supervisors voted 5-0 to approve a hybrid plan which divided LAFCO’s first phase into three sub-phases. Under the hybrid plan the territory served by volunteer fire agencies would be incorporated into the fire authority upon LAFCO ratification.

Although the October LAFCO vote was necessary for the first step of reorganization to be finalized, the supervisors authorized contracts for fire service which are currently awaiting the appropriate signatures from the county’s Purchasing and Contracting Department and which are expected to be implemented this month.

The supervisors’ action also guaranteed that the existing volunteer fire departments will be recognized.

“The two plans are fundamentally different strategies,” said Shirley Anderson, LAFCO’s chief of policy. “LAFCO’s reorganization and the hybrid plan cover substantially the same territory.”

The reorganization places six fire stations into the regional authority, each of which will be staffed by two reserve firefighters and one volunteer or reserve firefighter, and the territory also includes four Cal Fire stations.

The territory has individual improvement subzones for financial purposes.

“We need to keep the momentum going,” said Cary Coleman, the fire chief of the Intermountain Fire Department. “There are a lot of different ‘what we wants’ out there.”

The De Luz, Intermountain, Ocotillo Wells, Ranchita, Shelter Valley, and Sunshine Summit volunteer fire departments cover the area incorporated in the first step of Phase I.

“They have been the sole structural fire protection and emergency medical service providers for a number of years,” Anderson said.

County Service Area No. 135, the San Diego County Regional Communications System, was formed in 1994 to provide the authority and financial framework to institute the 800 megahertz radio communications system used for public safety and other public service.

The RCS allows emergency and public safety agencies to communicate with each other and includes ten incorporated cities as well as the entire unincorporated area of San Diego County (other cities contract with CSA No. 135 but are not part of the district).

Activating latent powers within an existing district avoided the need to create a new district. “We can take advantage of the fact that this one covers the unincorporated area already,” Anderson said.

County Service Areas must be formally dissolved before being incorporated into the regional department.

The County Service Areas would be merged with the fire authority in Step II, which would likely be implemented in 2010 or 2011. “There’s a big push to make this occur a lot sooner,” Anderson said.

Each of the fire stations would be staffed by two reserve firefighters and one volunteer or reserve firefighter.

The two fire protection districts, which must also undergo the dissolution process, would be reorganized in Step III, likely by 2011 or 2012. Each of the stations would be staffed by two career firefighters and one volunteer or reserve firefighter.

An additional 18 CalFire stations would consist of three career firefighters.

Because Phase I was divided into the three steps, some fire agencies which were reluctant to be part of an unproven regional district have expressed interest in being considered for the later steps of Phase I rather than Phase II, although Board of Supervisors approval would be needed to add those agencies to the reorganization sub-phases.

The agencies include the County Service Area which serves Palomar Mountain and the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District.

Anderson also recommended acceleration of the Municipal Service Review (MSR) if possible.

The MSR is expected to take up to three years and will include but not be limited to opportunities for cost avoidance, opportunities for shared facilities, government structure options, evaluation of management efficiencies, local accountability and governance, evaluation of competitive bidding practices, organizational structure of service delivery, and cost effectiveness of the hybrid service plan.

The report for the June 25 Board of Supervisors meeting included a map with response times, which built upon a study undertaken in 1999 by the Task Force on Fire Protection Services Funding (which was subsequently renamed the Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services and now covers issues other than funding). Updates may be included in the MSR.

Issues addressed at the October LAFCO hearing included whether placing the regional agency under the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use would create a conflict of interest and whether the county should engage in competitive bidding rather than sole-source contracts for service.

Although neither of those issues is under LAFCO purview, the LAFCO motion recommended to the Board of Supervisors that the county utilize competitive bidding.

The LAFCO hearing also included discussion about unincorporated islands surrounded by incorporated cities or by an incorporated city and a Phase II fire agency.

The LAFCO motion directed staff to return to the board with information from cities and fire districts determining their interest in annexing such areas. The latent powers were not activated for those island areas even though they are not officially served by a fire agency.

“Those islands have been there for a long, long time, and they’ve been served by whomever for a long, long time,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who didn’t wish to see the issue of the islands delay the activation of latent powers for the rest of the unserved territory, which is contiguous except for De Luz.

Discussion also involved properties in Alpine and Otay Mesa for which separate annexation proceedings are being considered.

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