Fireboard postpones decision on divorcing Cal Fire to next month
Engaged crowd at latest fire contract discussion.
May 22, 2013The Valley Center Fire Protection District (VCFPD) board, Thursday, confronted by a roomful of about one hundred people demanding that it delay a vote on a contract with the San Pasqual Band of Indians to staff Station 73, backed down from what many perceived to be a hasty decision made without giving the public time to digest it.
Before the vote several audience members loudly declared, "Listen to the community! We are the people who put you here!" The board did listen and postponed the decision until the June 20 meeting and promised to post on the district Website (www.vcfpd.org) the last offer Cal Fire made before VCFPD decided to go with San Pasqual, as well as the proposed contract with San Pasqual.
However, directors insisted that ultimately they would have no choice but to adopt the San Pasqual contract. Phil Bell, board treasurer, used a PowerPoint presentation to show that Cal Fire's contract would increase costs to the district by 25% over the next five years, while district revenue would increase 7%. "If we continued with the Cal Fire budget we would be broke in three years," he said.
"This is the choice we have made as your board. Cal Fire proposed a budget that, if we do nothing, continues to grow and grow and we become poorer and poorer until the County comes in and takes over and dictates what the staffing will be," said Bell.
If VCFPD does contract with San Pasqual for one station, it will have problems staffing Station 72 (on Lilac) with Cal Fire. Thom Porter, Cal Fire San Diego unit chief and County Regional Fire Authority chief said that the likelihood of Cal Fire "entering into a dual contract is virtually nil. It is a command and control decision. The likelihood is that Cal Fire will not be able to serve Valley Center in any capacity," he said.
Note: That does NOT mean that Cal Fire would not respond to wildfires in Valley Center. Wildfires remain Cal Fire's responsibility whether or not it contracts with the VCFPD to provide fire protection service within the district.
The board, which met in the water district boardroom, expected trouble. Three Sheriff's deputies, including Lt. Kelly Martinez, the VC station commander, took up positions. Asked if he requested them, fire district general manager John Byrne nodded and by way of explanation, said, "Keep order."
There is a question how many in the audience were actual residents since most who spoke said they were current or former firefighters and several wore T-shirts identifying them as being from other communities. Pete Montgomery, a retired chief and a VC resident, quipped that there must be several hundred years of firefighting experience in the room.
One resident told The Roadrunner, "If you subtracted all of the Cal Fire people and their friends you would have about a dozen residents in this audience."
Given that three fire board members are also former or current firefighters, the meeting definitely had the air of a firefighters' convention.
The first public member to speak was former board president Mel Schuler, who served 17 years. He took the board to the woodshed, criticizing it for not proceeding transparently and for not taking public comment before announcing its new relationship with San Pasqual. He added, "What are you doing to cut expenses? I haven't seen any cuts in personnel. Look at consolidating the fire marshal with the general manager or going to the community and asking for help. You're clearly not being transparent about your plans and that's unfair to the community."
Audience member Ricardo Jinese, a 19-year fire service veteran declared, "I think it [the proposed contract] is completely absurd. You get what you pay for. If you think this is going to be the same level of service, you are living in fantasyland."
The Roach family, who lost a family member while another was badly injured in the 2003 wildfires, grilled the board on how a contract could be enforced with a sovereign Indian nation, i.e. San Pasqual. Lori Roach added, "San Pasqual doesn't have the resources to provide the services that the community needs."
Mike Petro, a VC resident with 30 years in the service, said, "This is opening up a two-headed monster, one small district and two contracts."
James Butler said, "I'm a thirty-year fire professional and this is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. This is not an issue of money; it's a command and control issue. You can't have one agency being run by two different organizations. In an emergency it will not work."
Resident Jon Vick said, "Those fire departments were established to protect tribes. If a fire is coming up here I think you know where those fire trucks are going."
Bell responded to the comments. "We [on this board] live in Valley Center. We have the same concerns. You put us on the board. At the end of the day, folks, we need to be able to provide fire engines when you have a fire or a heart attack. We have to make sure that we have the resources. I started my career at Cal Fire, so I have nothing against them, but the issue is that we have done everything to cut back. In deference to Mr. Schuler we don't have anything else to cut back."
VCFPD announced its new relationship with the tribal fire department a scant week before it was scheduled to vote—a procedural faux pas that created the presumption that the board had already made up its mind.
This gave ammunition to the main opponents to the contract, Cal Fire union members, who posted accusations that the board had violated the Brown Act on the union's Facebook page before Thursday's meeting. This prompted Bell to challenge Cal Fire Union President Randy Scales to remove "the lies" about the district.
Probably the most provocative quote of the evening came near the end when board Pres. Weaver Simonsen said of the County Fire Authority and Cal Fire: "They are starting to take control. They are starting to say that if we [the County] gives you money we can tell you what to do with it."
According to Simonsen, the district's independence is tied up in this contractual issue. "It is my belief that residents of this district want to maintain our fire department. The County is pursuing a county fire department. The County
Fire Authority has been given goals in opposition to one another. One is to maintain local control and the other is to regionalize operations," he said.
He noted how the County got out of fire protection business in the 1970s and then told local communities to form their own districts. "That's why we formed our own department. The County has no legal mandate to provide fire protection because it's not in the County charter. I would urge you to support a charter amendment to require the County to provide fire service, if that's what you want," said Simonsen.
Director Jim Wold, who pointed out that he and Bell have 50 years experience in firefighting between them, added, "If the County assumes control of the district you would no longer have the department. At the end of the day we are going to do what we have to do to provide you fire suppression services. That's why you put us here."
Board President Bill Palmer warned that if the district doesn't save the needed funds by contracting with San Pasqual, it would need another source of funds. "We have to close up our budget gap. We will have to raise your benefit fees. It's up to you folks to shake the bushes and see if any money falls out."