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To Be or Not To Be in Borrego Springs


Last updated 1/14/2022 at 12:59pm

In 2017, the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District (BSFPD) was in trouble: Not enough money to keep up with the competition in attracting and keeping seasoned personnel, especially paramedics. The trucks, ambulances, and medical equipment had come of age, and passed it.

Funded with varied tax rates on local residences, businesses, golf courses and other real properties, the District is overseen by a locally appointed, five-member board of directors. As a “Special District,” BSFPD has no authority to automatically raise taxes to meet costs, whether its salaries or a new heart monitor, except through a vote of Borrego Springs’ taxpayers. Years and inflation long ago overwhelmed the budget of $1.8 million.

Running out of places to cut the budget, struggling to pay-off unpaid liabilities, and bringing employee salaries in line with comparable fire districts, the BSFPD Board decided it was necessary to do something. The District approved placing Measure PP on the San Diego County ballot in the 2018 General Election to increase property taxes, including $225 annually for single family residences. The measure needed a two-thirds vote, since it was initiated and sponsored by a quasi-governmental entity – the BSFPD, and would add $720,000 yearly to the District’s budget.

Illustrating a point for the ballot measure, BSFPD Chief John Hardcastle pointed out, “Even though the BSFPD does the same work as a comparable fire district, like the Bonita Sunnyland Fire District, the budgets are very different. The Bonita Fire District was at $3.8 million in 2018, compared to Borrego Springs’ District budget of $1.8 million.”

While voters approved Proposition PP by a 56% majority, it failed to garner the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass.

That was three years ago. Today, things have gone from troubled to critical. According to Chief Hardcastle, “The situation of attracting and retaining personnel with a salary scale 30 percent below the regional average has only gotten worse; some medical equipment has gotten too old to meet county regulations; and the aging vehicles are less safe and functional as more modern models.”

He’s concerned about employee morale, filling current vacancies, buying new fire rigs, and staying ahead of the costs of equipment and building maintenance without new funds. Short of passing another tax increase initiative, he doesn’t like the options the District faces.

“The District’s Board is determined that the fire and ambulance services stay in Borrego. Unfortunately, failing to solve the money problems over the past three years has only made the situation worse, and some unsatisfactory choices a necessity,” Hardcastle said. “Without funds to run the services, it may come down to merging with CalFire, privatizing the ambulance service, or other options, which would mean Borrego residents would lose local fire department and paramedic services.”

In this scenario, Borrego forfeits local control over where the ambulances and fire equipment are housed, or how they would cover Borrego Springs. However, merging with CalFire is an option some District firemen support, since their salaries would be increased.

The most obvious and meaningful cost saving solution would be to reduce the paramedic service to one ambulance unit, or to close down the service entirely. Legally, fire prevention and protection are the first priority of the Department, so this service cannot be discontinued, even though the demand in Borrego is for ambulance services.

“Our personnel numbers are low and we aren’t attracting people to fill vacant positions. That increases the workload for our current Association members, stretching their shifts, and causing burnout,” Brian Lozano, president of the BSFPD’s Fireman’s Association, stated. “Plus, a number of non-priority things have to be put on hold, until they become a major priority due to negligence. The source of the problem is that the District’s salary scale is vastly below other fire agencies. There have been no permanent raises, and no hope for any in the future.”

“Morale is not at an all-time low; but it’s not very high. We’re making the best of what we have,” he added, noting, “The Fireman’s Association is ready to support a grassroots campaign to put another tax increase before Borrego voters in November’s General Election.”

A ballot measure sponsored by residents, or a “grassroots campaign” has different rules than one sponsored by the BSFPD. One big thing is, the Firemen’s Association can campaign on their time off, and out of uniforms. Unlike the ballot measure sponsored by the District, where no one, not board members, the chief, firemen, EMTs, nor paramedics could publicly campaign for Proposition PP. In a grass-roots ballot initiative, participation by people most directly affected would be a plus.

Eric Castro, a paramedic, left the Borrego Fire District, but moved back and rejoined.

“I love Borrego; and, believe it’s possible by pulling together with the community, we can secure a better future for the department and the community,” Castro said. “Despite the majority of calls in Borrego, an aging community, are for paramedics, one of the choices for cutting the budget to balance the increased costs, will be to shut down the paramedic service.”

An option, Castro does not believe will be good for Borrego, or what residents’ want.

“We know Borrego wants to keep its fire and paramedic services. In the 2018 ballot measure, residents voted by a majority to increase the District budget by taxing themselves,” Castro said. “A local grass-roots initiated ballot measure does not require a supermajority, only a simple majority to win, which I am optimistic will happen.”

He agreed with the others about morale.

“Morale is bad. People are frustrated and angry. Some have been waiting 30 – 40 years for a decent salary. A few are just going through the motions. From my perspective, the salary issue has resulted in a serious health problem for Borrego,” he stated. “Borrego Springs has a large geriatric community, both as residents and visitors, and because we can’t afford experienced paramedics, we hire younger, less experienced personnel. From my observations, they often haven’t been in a real-life situation where they have to make a decision about when a patient is critical and requires emergency air lift. That’s not to say with proper training and time, they won’t make excellent paramedics. It’s the present contact with patients that worries me.”

This brings up the issue of quality training. “It’s costly, and time consuming; not something that can be short changed. When a life or lives are at risk, you want the most qualified medics at the scene,” he said.

“It’s also not fair to send firefighters or paramedics to do a job if they feel ill-equipped or unprepared. By only attracting, young, probationary, firefighters and paramedics that are willing to take less pay in return for training, we’re investing money and time into personnel that will move onto to a better paying fire department as soon as they have completed training.”

“I also believe the crews need to be more familiar with the community. When time is of the essence, knowing how to navigate the streets, motor and mobile home parks, and residential areas can be critical. Some homes don’t have clearly marked house numbers, making it difficult to find the home with the emergency, especially at night with Borrego’s Dark Skies.”

The BSFPD has 14 paid employees, including the Chief, administrative officer, three captains, three engineer/paramedics, six firefighter/paramedics, and 23 volunteer firemen.

Among some, the Chief’s salary, and his four raises since 2015, has become a source of bitter controversy. However, Chief Hardcastle’s 2018 salary, contrasted with other District chiefs in similar-sized districts, showed his total income, like the other BSFPD personnel, is less than his peers earn; and, definitely, not even in the ballpark of much higher paid chiefs of city fire stations.

Linda Haddock, a former board member, pointed out that the District’s budgetary woes made it hard to recruit a qualified chief.

“People just have to understand, the District had no choice, but to be reasonably competitive for the Chief’s position. Even though the Chief’s payment package took a bite out of our budget, the Board felt a responsibility to hire a solid professional and qualified chief,” Haddock said.

Others, who requested to remain anonymous, claim the Chief is not really interested in the job; just biding his time until he can resign or retire on his benefits package.

Castro, and others defended Chief Hardcastle, saying, “He’s like the rest of us, just doing the best that can be done under really difficult circumstances. Raises are a sensitive issue, since there have been no salary increases in years, with one exception, a 4% raise for the Ocotillo contract. That lasted for two years before being cut from our paychecks.”

“It makes it even harder when we get a 4% raise, and start counting on it. Then, the next thing we know, it’s taken from us,” added Castro, referring to additional income funneled through a county contract for servicing the Ocotillo District. When the BSFPD decided not to renew this contract, the 4% raise was removed from our salary, and people resented it.”

Chief Hardcastle, on the other hand, defends the District’s decision not to renew the contract.

“The County only pays $100,000 for Ocotillo’s fire and sheriffs protection. The money is split evenly between the two public safety services. The District only gets $50,000, and that isn’t enough to cover the actual manpower costs and related expenses.”

The Chief has come to a similar conclusion about grants. Some members of the department grumble that in the past the District was able to defer costs by applying for federal, state and county grants. Chief Hardcastle justified his resistance to grants by saying, “Grants are short term, often less money than actually needed, and targeted for specific items, which may not be a department’s real funding priority.

“Short term fixes that can ultimately leave us coming up short are not what the District needs. To be competitive and provide the highest level of service, we need a budget that pays decent salaries and cost of living increases, not a one-time fix. Plus, applying for grants takes time and expertise needed elsewhere. BSFPD needs income that’s flexible enough to fund our specific priorities, which are different from other districts’ needs,” the Chief continued.

“Grants are generic and specific in nature. Besides not having control over how to spend grants, they add to funding problems in cases where the District doesn’t have the ability to budget for them when the grant money runs out, much like the Ocotillo contract.”

The Borrego Fire and Paramedic District is distinct in the same ways that Borrego Springs is unique. It’s a two-hour drive to a hospital emergency room, and 10 – 20-minute ambulance ride to Mercy’s emergency air evacuation helicopter. For a seriously injured or ill individual getting to the right medical help requires assessment and transport by well trained and competent ambulance personnel. The desert climate with its instant switch ups in weather, from hot to freezing, flood and wind advisories, to dangerously winding two-lane roads, are all recipes for accidents.

With a few exceptions, there are no water hydrants in Borrego, and the District has only one water tender. In the case of a large fire, it would be like spiting on a campfire.

The desert offers many places and circumstances that are hazardous to people unprepared or unfamiliar with its dangers.

“Public safety for tourists and visitors that may get in trouble, or innocently create public situations, can quickly consume a big chunk of the budget,” according to the Chief. He points to the last Super Bloom’s overflow of cars and visitors.

“This type of unplanned event is very costly due to the extra, unbudgeted demands placed on the department. It’s important to remember from a financial standpoint, we can’t limit overtime if we are needed. And overtime is expensive. We can’t just say, ‘sorry, we did our eight hours today, going home.’ At the same time, Borrego needs tourists. As our guests, we must be able to assure them public safety while they’re here.”

“One of the programs we had to eliminate was community education around disaster preparation and CPR certification. I was very sorry to lose these programs, and hope we can fund them again in the future,” noted Chief Hardcastle.

Besides salaries, the aging infrastructure, increasing maintenance costs, outdated equipment and older vehicles are reaching critical mass. The District has two, type 2 fire trucks; one, type 3 truck; one water tender; three ambulances; the Chief’s truck and one utility vehicle.

According to Chief Hardcastle, “It’s time for new ambulances. The 10-year old frontline engine needs replacing. Engines can cost from $500,000 to $150,00 for fewer bells and whistles. At any price, the District’s budget hasn’t the funds to purchase one. The outdated cardiac monitors, which no longer meet county protocols, cost $120,000, and that’s just the top of the District’s repair and replace list.”

The Chief believes, the only sustainable solution is to have a budget that includes, adequate capital reserves, salary equivalents that stop employee attrition, money for regular maintenance, breathing room to meet the costs of providing public safety for large crowds of tourists; restarting special community-based programs, and a built in benefit escalator that complies with the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

“No more grants or government handouts. The District needs to be able to support itself; and not be constantly begging for other people to bail us out, or bugging generous private individuals to come to our rescue one more time with a donation.

“Just this year, one of our loyal community backers paid to cement the entire station grounds and driveways, replacing the muddy gravel mess on rainy days, and stopping sand from spraying into the buildings and equipment on windy days.”

The BSFPD has five board members. There’s currently one vacancy. Board members are compensated $500 a year.