Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Fire Department Crisis Continues

 

Last updated 3/24/2022 at 9:44am



The Second Option for community-based emergency services is for the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District (BSFPD) to officially dissolve the special district and join the San Diego Fire Protection District (SDFPD/CAL FIRE). This is one of two solutions available to solve the Borrego Springs Special District’s financial problems.

The other, a special grassroots ballot measure to increase real property taxes, approximately three times the current fee. The current fee for the average single-family residence is $25 dollars. A new tax measure would need to increase that amount to $225 to bring the district’s finances up to par and in keeping with inflation and delayed expenditures in terms of firefighter/paramedic salaries and benefits, and a capital reserve fund to replace vehicles and medical equipment that are outdated or scheduled to be replaced in the near future.

The BSFPD was created in 2008 by local residents to fund a higher level of emergency services in the Borrego Springs area, which includes paramedic, EMT, and ground ambulance services. At that time emergency services first responders were Deputy Sheriffs contracted by the County, or came from the state firefighting services, or drew upon existing urban fire departments when there was a major event such as a wildfire.

With the advent of larger fires occurring more often, increasing economic and human costs to the backcountry, the County decided to fund a rural fire district, which includes emergency services. The San Diego Fire Protection District is funded through the county’s General Fund. CalFire is contracted to manage and staff the rural district. Currently the SDFPD operates 42 fire stations, 21 of which are staffed by County Fire, Three Deer Springs Fire District Stations, and 18 CalFire stations, covering a 1.7 million-acre service area.

When voters added fire protection to the County Charter, and as SDFPD has grown its service areas, adding stations with positive results, a number of special districts have joined the rural fire district. Where, in most cases, there is a higher level of services, while lowering taxes. There are a number of rumors that circulate about how joining the County Fire would lower local services. Interviews with county officials, including SDFPD Chief Tony Meecham, contradict what they call “misinformation,” providing the following.

PROS: argument for joining the San Diego Fire Protection District/CAL FIRE

- There will no longer be a special district tax on real property in the Borrego taxing area to fund the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District.

- Funding for local firefighting and paramedic services as a member of the SDFPD, will come from the County’s General Fund, which has a larger tax base. Therefore, a greater capacity to support the fire and paramedic services to which Borrego is entitled;

- Tax payers in Borrego Springs now pay two taxes used for fire protection and paramedic services in the unincorporated areas: The County Tax and the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District Tax. By joining the County’s Fire District, property owners would only be paying one tax: The same -County tax all San Diego County residents pay;

- A grassroots ballot measure to increase taxes and raise adequate funds to operate the BS Fire Protection District may not be approved by the voters, leaving the district with continuing budget deficits.

“With the current financial climate and rate of inflation it would be hard to ask the community for more money. Borrego has a large retired population that relies on fixed income,” stated Brian Lozano, president of the Local Firefighters Association.

- The SDFPD would immediately add $750,000 to Borrego Springs’ budget. (The same amount requested by the District in the 2018 tax increase measure (PP), which failed);

The two ambulances and paramedic personnel would be retained, according to Chief Tony Meecham, “In fact, one ambulance and personnel may be added, depending upon the negotiations,” he stated.

- All current personnel would have the option to stay, and receive a considerable increase in salaries and benefits;

- All current personnel of the District that wish to stay would be offered employment with the State CalFire, under a process known as “blanketing in.”

Chief Meecham states, “The process could take up to six months; and the firefighter/ paramedic personnel are protected legally to ensure that employees are not harmed by the consolidation.”

- A number of the Borrego Springs firefighters/paramedics, as members of the Borrego Firefighters Association (union), have voted, and voiced their desire to join County Fire. However, Lozano stated, “The Borrego Springs Firefighters Association L4160 will always want what the community decides is best.

- The current Fire Chief of BSFPD (John Hardcastle), if he chooses, would be blanketed into CalFire as a chief officer.

- The County would update and replace outdated vehicles and emergency equipment;

- Funds would be set aside to build a new fire station, as the existing station owned by the District does not meet county safety codes; According to Chief Meecham, “The cost would be about $18 million dollars minimum for a new station complex.” Borrego Springs has the 1797.201 right to provide ambulance service. “If County Fire were to provide service, we would not contract with Mercy Ambulance. The ambulance(s) would be stationed in Borrego and staffed with two firefighter/paramedics.”

- County Fire would staff a front line and secondary ambulance every day in Borrego;

- New expanded paramedic services in rural districts would have the benefit of the County-funded Citizen Emergency Rescue Training (CERT) and the Knock Box;

- The County is pursuing adding other types of medical services for rural areas such as in-home treatments, social services support, and constant contact with homebound seniors and the disabled, which, if approved, the programs would only apply to County Fire Stations;

- Any Borrego Springs organization may invite County Fire to make a presentation to the Community regarding the benefits of a consolidation;

- Professing to represent the community, the fact is there has been no election for the Board of Directors on the ballot for a number of terms. And some Directors have held long terms up to 20 years, most serving by appointment made by the Directors.

- The process of consolidation includes meetings and negotiations with the SPFPD, the Firefighter’s Association, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), and County Supervisor Jim Desmond.

“Borrego residents need to determine what works best for Borrego Springs. I will support the priorities and the decisions of the Borrego Springs community. If Borrego Springs decides moving into the County of San Diego Fire Protection District is in their best interests, I will make sure that Borrego receives the best staffing, equipment and services,” Supervisor Desmond stated.

- And the community to determine the level of service, and ensure the range of services and attending structural, vehicular and equipment meets the resident’s emergency needs.

As part of the consolation, the current District is dissolved and the BSFPD Board of Directors are replaced with new directors, which is the County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Desmond will have the most authority over the County Fire operations in Borrego, as the supervisor representing Borrego, and as Director and employer of CalFire. Only when, and if a consolidation is desired by the community, “Supervisor Desmond is committed to protecting the will and desires of the community.”

CONS: Arguments against dissolving the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District, and joining the SDFPD/CAL FIRE DISTRICT.

- A successful ballot initiative in the November General Election to increase a conservative amount of funds needed to keep the District operating now and into the future at a level needed by the community would solve the budget problem.

Lozano points out, “If we were able to get a grassroots measure, on the ballot, we would be able to replace outdated equipment, apparatus, and in time address the elephant in the room that is our pay scale. New equipment, training opportunities, and increases in wages and benefits are all things that would help the district recruit and retain employees.”

Despite the fact, some Borregans consider the BSFPD’s problems the result of poor management, Lozano and others defend both the Chief and the Board as doing the best job possible considering the budget limitations. “

We maintain a stance that Chief Hardcastle has done a fantastic job running the district over the last 14 years”, he said, adding, “The Directors have been fair to us, given the budget they have.”

- Borrego residents will surrender local control. Under County Fire, there will be no elections of official residents to serve the BSBD, or options for replacing Directors through ballot measures or election challenges;

- The decision making relative to staff assignments, operation of ambulances and firefighting vehicles would be out of the hands of the community, and the current BSFPD Board of Directors, who reside in the community;

- With County Supervisors as the board of Directors, it will be more difficult for residents to voice their opinions, or control the budget;

- Some local firefighters want to build a career in Borrego Springs Fire and under County/CAL FIRE, they can’t assume a career in one location.

The biggest obstacle to consolidating with the County Fire District is that the Borrego Springs board of directors must vote to dissolve the District. And, at this point, that is not an option that they think would be good for Borrego.

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