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No tax increase to fund independent VCFPD


March 05, 2014
Although many questions remain surrounding the possibility of the Valley Center Fire Protection District (VCFPD) becoming an independent fire department, one thing at least should stay the same: the tax rate structure for fire protection in Valley Center.

At the regular meeting of the VCFPD board on Feb. 20, Treasurer Phil Bell floated a proposal to hire Valley Center's own fire chief, battalion chief, and six fire captains, effectively ending the merger with the San Pasqual Reservation Fire Department (SPRFD). Although the board voted to continue working under the contract with SPRFD, Bell's proposal for an independent VCFPD will be revisited in six months.

According to Bell, an independent VCFPD could save $165,000 over the current agreement with SPRFD by reducing infrastructure costs and salaries for the chiefs and captains. Although this would restructure spending within the district, the tax structure for residents in the fire protection district would not change.

"Mr. Bell's proposal has absolutely nothing to do with the structure of rates that are in place. It's apples and oranges. It doesn't even compute that way," said District Administrator John Byrne. "That is strictly expense."

VCFPD's estimated budget for the current fiscal year sits around $2.4 million. Revenues are mostly generated from a combination of taxes and benefit fees tacked onto property tax bills, as well as some miscellaneous smaller sources of income. There are currently three benefit fee schematics in place, and the rate for each property differs based on the parcel size and type of use, according to Byrne.

"Bell's proposal doesn't change any of the tax schematics," said Byrne.

Under Bell's proposal, substantial savings could be achieved by lowering the current captain salaries from $93,455 to $80,000, the battalion chief salary from $95,000 to $90,000, and the fire chief salary from $131,736 to $110,000. Combined with the reduced costs of the San Pasqual infrastructure, Bell estimates there would be up to $165,000 in savings over the current contract.

Without a doubt, these figures will be further analyzed and honed in the coming months, and one of the largest questions still to be answered involves compensation for the firefighters themselves. Although Bell's proposal assume firefighter wages remains the same, he believes some of the savings could be used to increase their wages and make Valley Center more of a permanent destination for firefighters, rather than a pass-through training ground.

"If a firefighter wants to stay in their community and have that be their profession, their job if you will, then yeah, it's going to have to be more than the 8-13 per hour range to be able even to support a family," said Bell. "Ultimately that's the goal that I would like to work toward — to be able to give them the opportunity to stay with us, the Valley Center Fire Protection District, as full-time professional paid firefighters."

Valley Center firefighters are currently paid on an hourly rate and required to do a minimum of five shifts per month.

By departing from the San Pasqual infrastructure, the VCFPD would also need to secure its own human resources services and training standards. Though receptive to the proposal, President Weaver Simonsen and other board members resolved that the HR structure needs to be fleshed-out further before proceeding with Bell's proposal.

"We have not developed those policies, we have not developed those procedures," said Simonsen at the Feb. 20 board meeting.

Bell recommends outsourcing the HR department as the best option for the VCFPD moving forward.

"I have already contacted 5 private HR outsourcing companies. I had proposals from each one of the five for putting in an HR process just for this scenario," said Bell. "Special districts in similar situations use outsourcing because they can't afford their own HR department."

In the coming months the VCFPD board is looking for community input on the possibility of going independent. Although Bell's proposal is certainly bold, he is confident that it would save money, streamline the channels of communication, and maintain exceptional coverage in Valley Center.

"The Valley Center firefighters are the same firefighters now as they would be with my proposal, that doesn't change. They're the same people," said Bell. "I think what does change though is the awareness from the community's perspective that this is quote-on-quote their fire department. That's a huge thing, and the only way we can do that is through community involvement."

The VCFPD can be reached at 760-751-7600.

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