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Local residents learn about proposed fire contract deal


June 12, 2013
About 35 residents of the Valley Center Fire Protection District (VCFPD) Saturday morning heard a presentation about a proposed contract change and engaged in a Q&A session with fire officials Saturday morning at VC Community Hall.

The workshop was held in advance of the June 20 board meeting when directors are scheduled to vote whether to change the district's 30-year relationship with Cal Fire and adopt a contract with the San Pasqual tribe to provide the same officer and firefighter staffing levels at Station 72 on North Lake Wohlford Road.

The discussion was led by fire administrator, John Byrne, and board treasurer Phil Bell, with the purpose of answering questions and providing factual information.

"This is to help you get informed so you can make a judgment as to whether you think the fire board should make this decision," said Byrne. Although the district had decided NOT to require ID's in order to attend the meeting, Byrne emphasized that the meeting was not an opportunity for debate. "This is not a forum," he said. "It is intended to maximize information with one hundred percent observable fact so that no reasonable man could argue that this information is not right."

One factor that elicited many questions, was whether the proposed change would affect ISO ratings in the district. This rating is used to determine how much homeowners insurance costs in particular areas. Homes within five miles of a functioning fire station have an ISO rating of 5, compared to 10 for structures outside of that radius. This will not change, whether the firefighters manning the two stations in the district are Cal Fire or San Pasqual members.

ISO ratings for some people may increase since the tribe has applied for its own rating. If it obtains one, that could extend better insurance rates to residences within five miles of the tribal fire station.

Some audience members asked about the tribe's sovereign immunity, and whether, once it enters into a contract with the district, it can be held to it.

"That's not an issue," said Byrne. "We have obtained advice from our attorney that we have the authority to enter into this agreement." The permission of LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) is also not required, he said.

Others asked about the $750,000 a year the County has been giving to the district for about six years. This money is used to reimburse the district for extra Cal Fire firefighters to maintain 4.0 firefighter per station staffing. The County will withhold this money if the district discontinues its contract with Cal Fire. However, said Bell, the district will save much more than $750,000 a year, and can fund enough reserve firefighters to keep 4.0 staffing. "It is our intention to keep 4.0 staffing," said Bell.

Some have questioned the proficiency of San Pasqual's firefighters vis-à-vis Cal Fire firefighters. "There is no reason to believe that San Pasqual firefighters are any less proficient than other firefighters. They run their own academy, which has earned national and international proficiency awards," said Bell. "It is possible for a San Pasqual graduate to go into thirty-two states and satisfy their requirements."

The tribe's firefighters have been answering 60% of calls in the eastern part of the district, said Bell. He added that most of the calls district-wide are answered by VC reservists, who will continue to do so. "Our reservists are very well thought of in the county," said Bell.

Although the district may change its contractual relationship with Cal Fire, that agency is still required by law to respond to wildfires with all of its resources, "whether bulldozers, airplanes, etc," said Bell. "There will be no diminution of their response."

Several residents asked, in essence, "Why now?" Rick Price said, "You have said that Cal Fire has offered a one-year extension. What's your hurry? Can't the community be involved in this decision?"

Bell explained that the district had requested that Cal Fire provide its offer in January, but didn't get a proposed contract until April. "From the time we received it we had seven days to review it." That first contract would have increased Cal Fire's fees by 25% over the next five years. "Our income increase .75% each year," said Bell, so even though Cal Fire later decreased its percentage increase to 15%, that still would have put VCFPD in the red. With the existing contract, and no changes, VC will still lose $68,000 a year, he said. "And please don't ask us to spend reserves because I'm not going to be involved in doing that," said the treasurer.

Increasing the district's revenue stream might have been a possibility before the state legislature adopted the so-called "fee" of $150 annually that backcountry property owners pay, and which goes directly to Cal Fire. However, the local board knew that property owners would never support a local increase as long as that fee is in place. "Right now there is no foreseeable future of a tax increase in Valley Center," said Bell.

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