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Fireboard approves contract with San Pasqual to staff Station 73



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Fire board Pres. Weaver Simonsen during Thursday's meeting.
June 26, 2013
The Valley Center Fire Protection District board, after holding several public meetings to inform taxpayers of the ramifications of not changing contractors, Thursday unanimously voted to contract with the San Pasqual Tribal Fire Dept. to staff Station 73, located at 28205 N. Lake Wohlford Rd.

To not do so would, said board Treasurer Phil Bell, lead to eventual fiscal insolvency. A representative of the County Fire Authority challenged this, saying the County has offered to make up the difference in what the district stood to lose.

The vote ends the 30-year contract with Cal Fire, which previously said t would not participate in a split contract with the district, i.e. to staff Station 72 (located on Lilac), while tribal fire department staffs Station 73. The board has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday, June 27, to decide what to do about the remaining station. It could decide at that time to contract with San Pasqual for both stations or it take some other action. However, at press time the district had not yet published an agenda for Thursday's meeting. Interested persons can check out the district's Web site on Wednesday by visiting http://www.vcfpd.org/

About 80 people attended Thursday's meeting in the water district boardroom. Most appeared to want the board to take Cal Fire's offer for a one-year contract extension. Three members of the Roach family, John, Lori and Jason, who lost a daughter and whose house burned down in the 2003 wildfires, offered a petition with 178 names asking a postponement for a year to give residents time to research the issue.

"This board has done it's due diligence, to sit down at every opportunity to see if there is some other option," said board Treasurer Phil Bell, after listening to speakers, who each had two minutes to make their points. Bell, the district's point man for explaining why it has chosen to break with Cal Fire, disputed the idea that the community needs more time to study the issue. That's the board's job, he said.

"To go into debt for $170,000 just so people can understand what the concept is. . . I don't know if that's a decent use of money." He said they did everything to reach out to the public. He singled out the Roach family, which organized a meeting on the same day as one of the district's workshops, and who formed the nucleus around which opposition has formed.

Bell answered the Roach family presentation to say that he had tried to carry out a dialogue but that they didn't answer his phone calls or emails. "I was hoping that we would have a dialogue," he said. "I was hoping that we would move forward and figure out what the problem was.

"We are not seeing the public uproar of, 'Oh no! We need to stop this!" said Bell. He noted that there are 6,000 households in Valley Center that didn't sign the petition and said that the board must act in their interests as well, not just in the interests of those who attended to protest. "We have to balance that with what we feel the needs of the community are," he said.

One speaker who urged the board to vote for the new contract was Jon Landen, a longtime opponent of Cal Fire and supporter of an independent fire department. He said helped start the fire department when the County originally cut off funding for fire protection in the Backcountry.

Ken Miller, representing the County Fire Authority (CFA) said it was still possible to work out an arrangement with Cal Fire that the County would then support with a grant. "We (the County) would pay for all the increases and additional salaries." He said he believe that if VCFPD took Cal Fire's new offer, "that you will not have increased costs."

Miller said the County's staffing goal is 3.0 firefighters per engine, one less than Valley Center's staffing criterion. "The Board of Supervisors asked us to try to improve service. We have been asked why doesn't the County give the money outright. But if we did that service would no longer be regionalized, under one chief. It would be a step backwards."

Miller denied that the goal of the CFA is to "take over" VC fire. "That is not the case," he said.

Board President Weaver Simonsen challenged Miller on that. "You talk about regionalization and yet you are not taking over? In the contract it was clear that you were dictating to us. I don't have a problem with what you are doing, but don't let this group think that regionalization is not taking over. That means you are going to start getting into our business."

Simonsen said that wouldn't bother him if the County was forced by its charter to keep the commitments it is making to the Backcountry now. "The County can do that now because the last ten years the County has practiced good management. But I know that may not be true in the future, and there is no legal requirement for the County to provide fire protection in the Backcountry." Communities like VC, he said, rely on a majority of three supervisors to support a county fire authority. Someday that might not be the case, he said. "We know that because it has happened before! We don't know what some future board may do." He urged the Cal Fire union support a ballot initiative to the County charter requiring the County to provide fire service to the unincorporated area.

A round up of some comments made by speakers Thursday night:

"My position is, do everything you possibly can in a fiscally responsible way not to bankrupt this fire district. Do everything humanly possible to get paramedics on our engines. One paramedic on an engine will save countess lives."

"I'm convinced that Valley Center who wants to replace with less quality."

Steven Huchinson, a 30 year resident, said that when he first heard about the proposal that he was skeptical, but his concerns were addressed by Bell and district administrator John Byrne. "It's important to keep our firefighters under our control. It was the County that forced little rural communities to form their own departments. …What you are doing is a step in the right direction," he said.

Mike O'Connor expressed his "displeasure," with what was going on and felt that local residents "are being bullied" by the process.

"We elected you to represent us and to make decisions for us, if we are not here telling you how to vote on our behalf. I have signatures from one hundred and seventy-eight people. I want you to extend the contract. I want to research it for myself and I need time to do that. All the people on our petition would like the same thing. I would tell you how I want you to act on our behalf," said John Roach.

Richard Price seconded that. " Cal Fire has offered a one year extension and I think you should take this as an opportunity to study this further. We want time to be able to research this."

"This contract will not take this department forward, but will take it backward," said another.

"This change has nothing to do with money," said another. "The County has made up the money. Deer Springs took the money that you are refusing to take. At what point will the board put the safety of VC above a personal agenda?" said another.

Former board member and board president Mel Schuler noted that the district has always had shortfalls since it was formed. "The sixty eight thousand dollar shortfall could be covered by the County." Schuler said he didn't understand how, when everyone is asked to do with less, "the district has the highest salaries in its history. The district has increased salaries and not lowered costs one penny. If you want everyone else to lower the price why aren't you?"

Jason Roach criticized the board for presenting "one side. You're selling us a bill of goods. I don't feel that that is a good balance. You aren't showing Cal Fire and San Pasqual side by side. If you did you would see that Cal fire is coming to the table and offering to cut their costs."

Randy Scales, Cal Fire union president, declared, "What has been presented are only half truths. Your presentation doesn't show the money the County offered." He said, "If you take the $700,000 the County is offering and let the County take over the fire marshal's services, that money is on the table. There is an agenda to get rid of the County. Why? For five years you have operated under the County and taken their money."

After the public spoke, it was directors' turns.

Director Oliver Smith said, "I was elected to make decisions in the best interests of the residents of Valley Center, not residents of Cal Fire, or residents of Deer Springs, not the residents of the Cal Fire Union— but Valley Center residents," he said. "We have a requirement and fiscal responsibility. We are not the federal government. We can't print money."

He said his biggest concern is reading about other districts, such as Ramona, that have seen staffing cut to 2.0 firefighters per engine. He said he didn't want to see VC, which current maintains 4.0 cut staffing. "I see that as being key."

Smith said that "valid questions," have been raised "about capabilities and training" of tribal firefighters, "and will the ISO rating be impacted. In my opinion the capabilities and staffing is equal and the training is at least equal."

He noted that some speakers criticized the board for not going public when the state first delayed four months making its contract proposal until it was almost time for the district to make a decision. "Why didn't we go to the local newspaper screaming that we didn't have the contract on time? Well, as long as I've been on the board nothing has come from the state on time. Am I surprised it was four months late? Is there anything that I felt we could practically do about it? No. It is the world we live in. It is the responsibility of this board to make decisions in a fiscally responsible manner with however much time we have to do it," said Smith.

Smith said the district choosing a new contractor might make Cal Fire lower its demands. "If you have been a monopoly for thirty or forty years and your prices are way up there and someone else demonstrates that you can do the same job…" He added that people in VC know the firefighters of San Pasqual. "We know who they are and what they do."

He said 4.0 staffing level is "very important. We have year to year cut costs. This time we just hit a wall. We are not kicking the can down the road. That doesn't mean that people can't actively question the day-to-day issues, questions on contracts. We have the time. Valley Center is not losing fire protection. We have known capability support, if we go forward. That doesn't mean we stop looking at it to make it better."

In answer to statement that the board should listen to the residents in the room and do what they told them to do, Smith answered, "I do listen to you, and the remainder of the thirty-five hundred homes in Valley Center. It is what, in my opinion, is the best for VC. This is what you elected me for and I'm doing my job."

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