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Fire Department Crisis

BSFPD Pros and Cons: Weight It Out

 

Last updated 3/7/2022 at 2:04pm



While community members flock to the Stewardship Council’s, “Dreaming Borrego,” compiling wish lists for the future, the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District (BSFPD), one of Borrego’s most important assets, withers from lack of funding and attention.

The District has reached a fork in the road and has only three paths forward. Each direction comes with pros and cons. Facts on the alternatives are hard to nail down, as people, who should be in the know, either aren’t, or are closed to any option that doesn’t represent their special interests. The term “special interests” as used here should not be interpreted as a negative, but rather, as people in positions to know and guide future decisions have vested interests and differ on what’s best for Borrego.

At this critical juncture, Borregans need to gather the available information, discuss and decide which option most meets their needs. Final decisions should take into account the economics of the taxpayers that fund the special district, as well as the life and death medical realities of living in Borrego Springs.

“It’s possible in only 18 months, without a miracle, the District will be forced to close down the paramedic ambulances,” BSFPD Fire Chief John Hardcastle, said.

Operation of the ambulances is a critical emergency service that regularly rescues and saves the lives of locals, vacationers, motorists, snow birds, tourists, and day trippers.

In this scenario, the District will likely contract with Mercy Ambulance to transport the ill or injured, while the local paramedics will respond to 911 calls on the fire truck; do what they can, and make the call for transport, either by Mercy Air or Mercy Ambulance.

The issue is pretty simple: The BSFPD needs more money to operate. The District is locked into its original budget of $240,000, passed years ago that has prevented it from keeping up with paramedic/firefighter salaries, and capital reserves needed to replace aged equipment, buildings and vehicles.

To address the problem, Directors placed a tax increase on the November 2018 ballot that would have added approximately $750,000 to the budget. Measure PP failed to get the super majority vote required (two-thirds support), even though it received a majority vote of 57%. Meanwhile, for the past four years, the costs of operating the District have continued to out-pace its budget, raising red flags and a slow slide into the red side of the ledger.

When a government, and the BSFPD is viewed as a government, attempts to raise taxes, all types of restrictions apply, including two-thirds approval from the voters. The District and its employees are also prohibited from any type of campaigning and must remain at arms’ distance.

What can be done? Who will decide what’s best for Borrego? What will it cost? What are the most critical concerns? What level of service is needed for residents and visitors to be safe, should an emergency medical incident occur? The following are three options:

- Grassroots’ tax increase campaign to place a measure on the November ballot;

- Dissolve the BSFPD and join the San Diego County Fire Protection District (SDCFPD) managed by CalFire;

- Status Quo or Do nothing

In this, and following articles, the Borrego Sun will attempt to identify the pros and cons of each option.

A grassroots campaign, on the other hand, where the tax increase is proposed and placed on the ballot by a committee of local residents only requires a simple majority. Had Measure PP been initiated by community members; it would have passed.

If a tax increase to fund the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District is placed on the ballot by community members that have officially organized as a committee, are prepared and ready to comply with the County’s rules and state laws governing citizens’ initiatives, the logical window would be the November 7, 2022 General Election.

Two BSFPD Directors, Brad Tidwell, chairman of the Board, and Fred Jee, director, admitted they are hoping a grassroots campaign this year will save the District from any future, drastic reductions in personnel and service.

Asked what, if anything, they were doing to make this happen, Jee shrugged his shoulders, and Tidwell was noncommittal.

Pros: Organize a Grassroots Campaign and place a successful tax increase on the 2022 General Election ballot.

Raising taxes on real property that would add $750,000 to the District’s current budget with an escalator clause, tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) would conservatively provide for the revenues the District needs to preserve a high level of service.

Plus, it provides funding flexibility so the district doesn’t have to go through the difficult and expensive ballot initiative process of going to the voters when costs of living overwhelm the budget.

In addition, a successful ballot measure:

- Increases single family residential taxes from an average of $75 to $225 annually. Allowing the District to provide a higher level of emergency services than basic rural fire protection.

- Improves the district’s competitive ability to recruit and retain qualified firemen/paramedics.

- Attracts and retains experienced paramedics. As in all professions, it takes experience to become an expert at judging when a person needs to be evacuated by Mercy Air, or transported to a hospital.

- Experienced paramedics are also confident and competent to address a medical issue that does not require hospital treatment.

The escalator clause prevents a rerun of the current situation, where the Director’s hands are tied and can’t meet the District’s current needs. Due to the budget limitations the quality of service is eroding, and may force the District to resort to reorganization of personnel, disbanding the ambulance service and contracting with a private ambulance provider.

At BSFPD, 99% of calls are for paramedics. “We are unique from other districts. The majority of our calls are for paramedics, and ground transport to the level of care needed,” reported Tidwell.

More revenue for the District:

- Saves the patient the cost of a private ambulance, which may be financially prohibitive for the uninsured.

- Maintains the level of service Borrego requires due to the average older age of the population, Spanish speaking residents, tourists and vacationers.

- Bolsters a reasonable capital reserve fund to purchase new trucks, ambulances, and updated emergency equipment, plus the potential need to build and equip a new fire station.

“Some vehicles are older, and in line to be replaced should the money be available,” claimed Chief Hardcastle.

The tax increase:

- Replaces medical equipment that is outdated.

- Keeps paramedics trained in Borrego; and equipped to work in the desert’s weather challenges, from rescuing people suffering heat strokes, to accidents due to the rugged terrain.

“Training costs money, and is an investment in the District,” Chief Hardcastle said. “Too many entry level paramedics come to Borrego to be trained, accepting the low wages in exchange for training. Then, once they graduate, they immediately move to a district paying higher wages.”

A winning grassroots campaign:

- Retains paramedics in Borrego long enough to find their way to homes or businesses where a medical crisis is occurring.

When minutes count: “Our guys are sometimes hampered by homes hidden on the back of a lot, or homes without displayed street addresses, especially at night. It takes a while, but paramedics who stay in the district soon learn how to find their way around and are able to speedily reach any location where an emergency exists,” explained Eric Castro, BSFPD paramedic.

Chief Hardcastle says that he was very sorry to close down the CERT training.

“I’m hoping with a more realistic budget, we will be able to get back out in the community again with CERT and other programs,” he said.

New revenue:

- Allows the District to restore community-based education programs such as Community Emergency Rescue Training (CERT).

The bottom line, expressed by Tidwell, who has served on the board for 20 years, is that “Borrego deserves its own fire prevention and paramedic services. If we aren’t here, who are you gonna call if you’re having a heart attack? When it’s your life at stake, don’t you want the best trained and qualified professionals that money can buy? The best equipment? That’s what the Directors want for Borrego Springs.”

Tidwell added, “If the district can’t meet the real needs of the community because of its financial situation, it would be a great disservice to the community. That the BSFPD is governed by local residents, who know the community and its needs is an important part of the equation. By funding the services of the district, the residents of Borrego are in control of the priorities and hiring practices and level of service.”

Current District Directors are: Chairman Bradley Tidwell; Paul Reisman, secretary; Directors: Frederick Jee, Annmarie Tidwell, and Elizabeth Reisman. To qualify for director, one must be a voter and permanent resident of Borrego Springs.

Cons: Arguments Against a Grassroots Campaign to add funds to the BSFPD through a tax increase of real property.

The campaign to raise taxes:

Adds a new tax burden on homeowners, businesses, and churches, at a time when all levels of the economy are still trying to recover from the financial downturns, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tied to the CPI, an escalator clause can be vague and, without a cap, could grow exponentially without the approval of the people paying the bill.

Believing because voters approved Measure PP by a majority in 2018, it will be easy to get a majority in 2022 is wishful thinking. The economic picture in 2018 was much more robust than this year, with so many unknowns about pandemic recovery, inflation, and taxes.

Counting on a successful grassroots campaign becomes less possible every month that passes as the organization required to meet country and state laws, as well as deadlines for action, including signatures to get on the ballot, are not in place.

Keeps the current five-member board of directors, whose inertia and failure to act, according to detractors, is one of the causes of the current situation.

Electing the five directors hasn’t really happened for a number of years, because the board makes appointments to fill vacancies. And without a contest (at least one challenger to make six people running) the County’s Registrar of Voters does not place the BSFPD on the ballot.

“Someone from the department placed an ad in the newspaper to fill vacancies. But no one ever applies,” bemoaned Tidwell.

Looking like nepotism, the five-member board has a husband and wife team, a daughter and father, and one outlier serving.

An anonymous source said, “It’s easier and more expedient for the board members to appoint family members, who always agree with them, than recruiting new voices that might upset their cozy little empire.”

Attracting new blood for the board, which is not aggressively pursued through recruitment and without elections, makes the idea that the board is responsive to voters’ pure rhetoric.

Eric Castro expressed concern that new money will not guarantee an improvement in the conditions for the firemen/ paramedics.

Raising new taxes doesn’t guarantee that salaries and benefits will increase.

Asked if they had an alternative Plan “B” in case there is no grassroots’ rescue, or if a tax increase fails to happen this year, Chairman Tidwell, claimed, “He wasn’t sure, but to ask the Chief.”

Director Fred Jee responded, saying, “There are too many things in play; conditions are always changing, making it impossible to plan for the future.”

Chairman Tidwell was clear he would not support an alternative in the dissolution of the District and joining the San Diego Fire Protection District, managed by CalFire.

“Borrego is special and deserves its own fire and paramedic district,” stated the 20-year veteran of the Board.

Whether taxpayers agree with Tidwell on what Borrego deserves remains to be seen.

Next: The Pros and Cons of joining the San Diego County Fire Protection District. Will it save taxpayers money? What would be the level of service? Will Borrego’s ambulances and paramedics remain in Borrego? What are the obstacles?

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