Source: Valley Roadrunner

VC Fire drops Cal Fire for one station, picks up San Pasqual Tribal Fire

May 15, 2013

A new partnership between Valley Center Fire Protection District (VCFPD) and the San Pasqual Tribe Fire Dept. that downgrades VC’s relationship with Cal Fire will save hundreds of thousands of dollars and will mean that the district won’t have to go the public for increases in benefit fees for several years.

Thursday morning VCFPD announced a new relationship with the San Pasqual Tribal Fire Dept. that will give the tribal department staffing responsibility for Station 73 on N. Lake Wolhford Road, replacing Cal Fire, which has contracted with the district since 1984.

District board Pres. Weaver Simonsen, board treasurer Phil Bell and District Administrator John Byrne along with officials of the San Pasqual Tribe, including Chairman Allen Lawson and tribal fire chief Harold L. Rodriguez, held a press briefing at Station 73, which will now be staffed by two firefighters from San Pasqual as well as two Valley Center reserve firefighters.

This new contract has actually not yet been adopted and will be voted on at the Thursday, May 16 fire board meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. at the water district board room, 29300 Valley Center Rd. The public is invited.

There was some online grumbling by Cal Fire’s union Facebook page with CDF Local 2881 implying that the fire board might have violated the Brown Act somehow in making the change. However, the official vote on the new arrangement won’t actually be taken until Thursday, and the details of the new contract were hammered out by the fire district’s negotiating team, which includes its general manager, John Byrne and fire marshal, George Lucia. The board has met once in closed session in April to discuss the details of the contract. It is normal to discuss personnel issues during closed sessions, and allowable under the Brown Act.

Board Pres. Weaver Simonsen, when asked about a potential Brown Act violation, pointed out that the board could still vote not to adopt the new contract, although at this point that seems highly unlikely.

“It’s a passionate issue,” he said.

Director Bell added, “We encourage public discourse and civility. We would prefer no shouting or incivility.”

The new arrangement DOES NOT mean that Cal Fire will reduce its staffing in the fire stations that it currently operates in the area, including the station at Vesper.

Staffing levels at Station 73 will be maintained at the same level as before, with two tribal professional firefighters augmented by two VCFPD reserve firefighters.

The new arrangement will save the district several hundred thousand dollars. According to a statement issued by the district, “During the course of the preparation of the Budget for FY 2014 we received Cal Fire’s new contract and upon review of the increased cost it became abundantly clear to the Board of Directors that the District could no longer keep the current Cal Fire staffing pattern that had existed for many years. The Board was faced with the situation where we would need to substantially reduce staffing in order to both avoid deficit spending and erosion of the District's reserve funds.”

“This shift has nothing to do with Cal Fire’s performance,” said Simonsen. “The cost of continuing with Cal Fire would have a negative impact that would create a deficit in our budget and impact reserves.”

He added that the board chose its “closest neighbor,” to provide fire service because San Pasqual currently answers a large percentage of calls in the eastern part of the district anyway. This way it will be paid for it, he said. “Over sixty percent of our calls in that part of town were answered by San Pasqual last year,” said Simonsen. “We do not see any change in what’s happening or in the level of service.”

San Pasqual Chairman Lawson noted that VCFPD and San Pasqual firefighters currently cross train together and work together frequently. “We are the neighbor of this fire department. This is our community. This is our home. Our children go to the school across the street from the fire station.”

According to Simonsen the issue was whether the district would go under financially, and cease to function as a fire district, or to continue forward. If the district had gone forward with the contract that Cal Fire was proposing, it would be $70,000 in the red this year, he said. “We have to go down this road or else will be bankrupt,” he said.

Going forward with the tribal fire department will mean that the district will be $125,000 in the black for this year, he added.

San Pasqual will be paid $500,000 annually by VCFPD. The contract will be an open contract that will be subject to renewal on a annual basis.