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Fire district must soon make historic decision on whether to stick with Cal Fire or partner with San Pasqual tribal fire


June 04, 2013
Valley Center Fire Protection District (VCFPD) is at a decision point: It must adopt a budget by June 30 and decide whether to stick with a contract with Cal Fire to staff its two fire stations or strike out on a new path by partnering with the San Pasqual Tribal Fire Dept.

It is a marriage that has last so far about 30 years, but this year the district staff and board, confronted by a Cal Fire contract that would put VCFPD in the red, approached San Pasqual. Events moved quickly in April after the district received Cal Fire's proposed contract, with the result that fire board president, Weaver Simonsen and board treasurer, Phil Bell, and tribal chairman Allen Lawson, held a press briefing on May 9 in which the proposed new relationship was announced, although the board had not yet voted on it.

The district has a $3.1 million operating budget, of which $1.9 million goes to Cal Fire. Under the new contract San Pasqual would be paid $500,000.

The press conference resulted in a somewhat tempestuous meeting on May 16 when audience members, many of them members of the Cal Fire union, demanded that the board postpone its decision until June. Directors did so and decided to schedule an educational workshop June 8, 9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. at VC Community Hall.

Board treasurer Phil Bell dropped by The Roadrunner office this week and talked about issues to be covered in the workshop.

"The San Pasqual fire station has operated a fire department at their current location for a number of years, and due to the closest unit availability concept has been responding to the east end of Woods Valley Road, the Paradise Mountain area, all places current south of their station. It's not like a new fire department has suddenly been dropped into the middle of Valley Center. They have been doing this already," said Bell.

"The other important thing is the presence of the Valley Center firefighters, sometimes known as reserves," said Bell. Reservists are the backbone of the department. Currently there are 24, although there have been as many as 30 in recent months. "It's such a popular program, we have twenty-three on the waiting list. Those are the people who respond to calls day in and day out. That is not going to change," said Bell. Under the current contract with Cal Fire, as well as the proposed contract with San Pasqual, they would provide support such as chiefs, captains and engineers.

Cal Fire has been providing a district chief, with two captains, three engineers and five Firefighter II's. These officers wear the Cal Fire Uniform. They have been stationed at Stations 72 (at Lilac & VC roads) and 73 (at VC Road & N. Lake Wohlford roads).

Some things will NOT change, whether or not there is a contract with Cal Fire. It will continue to operate its seasonal fire station on Vesper. It will have statutory responsibility for wildfires, and for some public safety calls, such as vehicle accidents. That extends onto Indian reservations, since Cal Fire has a contract for fire suppression on BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) land. The community will NOT lose its ambulance. That is a separate contract with Mercy Ambulance. Cal Fire's airplanes, helicopters and multi-engine strike teams will answer wildfire calls. That responsibility is not connected to the contract.

Some things WILL change. Three captains from the San Pasqual band will man station 73. Its chief, Harold Rodriguez, will devote one third of his time to VCFPD.

Under the current contract Cal Fire would still man Station 72. "So basically we would have a split district, which isn't as difficult as that sounds, if you go back to the basics of thinking of San Pasqual and Cal Fire as vendors," said Bell.

Reminded that at the May 16 meeting Thom Porter, Cal Fire San Diego unit chief and County Regional Fire Authority chief, said the likelihood of Cal Fire "entering into a dual contract is virtually nil," Bell added, "I will say that Cal Fire is evaluating their ability to operate in a split district status. That decision will be presented to the fire board before June 7, so we will have the information before the June 8 meeting."

Bell added that one of the frustrations of negotiating with Cal Fire is that it presents a moving target. "Every time we go back to the table there is some new change of the contract amount or interpretation of the contract. We want to make sure we have looked under every single rock, so the decisions before us are based on fact. Not on what ifs."

What options exist if Cal Fire refuses to implement a dual authority contract? "We would in all likelihood solicit San Pasqual to provide extra personnel and three captains. The reserves would remain the same at both stations. The contract for San Pasqual for Station 73 is $500,000. To supply three personnel at Station 72, would be another $500,000, with the attendant savings in costs," said Bell.

At the May 16 former fireboard president Mel Schuler, who served on the board for 16 years, criticized the current board for not cutting administrative costs, including the salaries and positions of the district administrator and fire marshal, before seeking a different vendor. In response Bell said, "We have looked at under every possible opportunity at cost cutting. There is no other place to cut. A fire marshal contracted from the County has its own attendant problems with priorities. That gentleman won't be assigned specifically to Valley Center, but to the County. I guarantee that the work our fire marshal does in terms of administration, weed abatement, and CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) would be removed. I can't see a CDF fire marshal administering our weed abatement program, crucial as that is. We would see the wildfire conflagration all of us fear because people wouldn't be removing weeds if we weren't asking them to."

And the district administrator? "The district must have someone who administers day-to-day the budget. You can't give that to someone else," said Bell.

At the May 16 meeting the Roach family questioned whether a contract with a tribe is enforceable, since tribes are sovereign. The district sought legal advice from Best Best & Krieger, which specializes in special districts. It advised that the new state law that came into effect in January (Government Code section 54981.7) allows tribes to enter into "Joints Powers Agreements" with fire districts.

"In the opinion of Best Best & Krieger such a contract is enforceable and that

contract sovereign immunity does not apply," he said.

Bell also addressed quality of personnel. "Are we getting a better fire department?" he asked rhetorically. "It's the same people, the reserve program, who put on the trauma dressings, patch the broken legs, do the extrications. That doesn't change. The training is a moot point. It's the people we have as reserves who are the cogs around which everyone else flows. We are in the position that we are not forced to go with Cal Fire because we have a strong reserve program. Our program is looked countywide as the gold standard. Other departments come to our reserves and know they have been vetted. We raised our standards to make sure that firefighters are FF 1, fire academy, all EMT 1 level and all have Hazmat operator responder courses done, as well as other courses that we require. Sixty percent of our reserves are qualified paramedics," he said.

Bell blames the need to move quickly a new contract—that caused so much criticism—on the fact that Cal Fire did not give the district a contract to review in January. "When it was presented to us in April that gave us a reflex time of seven to ten days to respond. It was evident from the numbers that a twenty-five percent increase over the life the five-year contract was not something that the district could pay. We communicated that to Cal Fire and they modified that to a fifteen percent increase. It's still not a situation and contract that will keep the district viable for any length of time," he said.

Contract negotiations with Cal Fire are ongoing, driven by state law that requires a budget to be in place by June 30.

The cost savings from a San Pasqual contract will push the district's current fiscal crisis five to seven years away and maybe more, says Bell. "We are trying to avoid the Band Aid approach of kicking the can down the road. We don't have the luxury to do deficit spending, although we have $2 million in reserves. But spending reserves got many communities into bankruptcy. That is what happened to Stockton."

Some people have suggested letting the County Fire Authority take over the district, as it is trying to do with several volunteer fire departments.

That, says Bell, would mean a loss of local control.

"1) We lose local control, so instead of four-man engine companies, the County could say you have two man engine companies, which is what they have done with other jurisdictions, including San Diego Rural and Pine Valley. 2) All the hooks that go into a partner with San Diego County, i.e. being at the control of whatever the current budget brings. The County has nothing in its charter for fire. So whatever they collect from us would go into general fund. We know that there are things that could cause that to be drained, leaving us without any fire department."

The County ha said that if VCFPD does agree to Cal Fire's contract that it will withdraw the $760,000 it pays a year. However, even figuring that loss into the mix, the district would still come away with more money by contracting with San Pasqual, says Bell.

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