Borrego Sun - Since 1949

BSFPD: The Decision is Yours

 

Last updated 4/6/2022 at 12:44pm



The real question Borrego residents should be asking is not whether there should be a grassroots’ ballot tax increase to solve Borrego Springs Fire Protection District’s (BSFPD) financial and service problems, but whether local taxpayers can afford a first-class fire and emergency service?

The failed ballot measure in 2018 would have added only $750,000 to the District’s annual budget. Even though it was an 800% increase for single family property owners, it was only a band-aid to temporarily stop the District’s financial hemorrhaging. Will another grassroots measure on the November 8 ballot be another short-term attempt to patch financial problems that are increasingly impacting emergency services and exceeding the District’s local tax base to resolve?

Whatever the percent increase in taxes under review for the next ballot proposal, it will not totally solve the personnel and payroll problems, since it won’t bring the pension and other benefits to a level equal to what the San Diego County Fire Protection District pays. It won’t improve the District’s lagging response times; put another ambulance on the ground; begin to touch a delayed capital budget; or the costs of replacing an aged ambulance and fire truck needed by the district.

When it comes to replacing the fire station, which does not meet County safety codes, a possible $18 million-price tag, the District’s savings of its annual $1,700 plus Fire Mitigation Fee towards a new fire station is a drop in the bucket.

So, what would a grassroots tax increase do? It can afford to only raise salaries by a small percent, and in increments, using a Cost of Living Index. While short of the County/CAL Fire salary schedules and benefits; it may be enough to temporarily stop the turnover in paramedical personnel. Basically, it keeps a district too short on funds to score well on the most important life-saving factor – response times-- to continue to pride itself on being “locally funded and controlled.” Is local control more important than saving lives? Or having well trained experienced paramedics treating life-threatening emergencies?

The reality is, the cost of a first-class fire and emergency services district has exceeded Borrego taxpayer’s’ ability to fund. Funds for the District come from a very small Borrego Springs’ tax base, and are expected to carry a Goliath of costs.

Before any tax increase campaigns are undertaken, the community needs to request a Performance Audit by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). The most objective overview possible, LAFCO is not beholden to the County or the District, but rather an independent state agency charged with oversight responsibility for Special Districts, be they water, or fire.

Then, the community needs a full cost accounting of what it would really cost taxpayers to bring the district up to par with the San Diego County Fire District. That would likely mean some serious Sticker Shock. However, from a factual basis, the community can decide what level of service Borrego Springs can really afford or accept.

Rather than moving forward with blindfolds about the state of the District, and endorsing a short term solution that only kicks problems down the road for the next board of Directors, fire chief, and Borrego tax payers, the community needs to address the real costs to shore up the District to make it competitive with the San Diego County Fire District. Only, then can there be a serious, pragmatic discussion about whether financing a locally controlled district is still viable or desired, versus joining the County Fire District.

Also, by funding the local District, local taxpayers are being double taxed. Meaning that every San Diego property owner pays County taxes, once a year. Individual county taxes paid by Borregans are now providing enhanced fire and emergency services through the San Diego County Fire Protection District to neighbors in Ocotillo, Julian, Ramona, Deer Valley, and more. Local tax payers are not only funding their own district, but subsidizing services for rural neighbors that are members of the County Fire District.

Financed through the County’s General fund, the County Fire District, benefits from a residential pool of three million taxpayers, and revenue sources provided by the state, including costs of major wildfire disasters.

It should be clear that Borrego has a major funding problem to maintain the level of services envisioned when the Borrego Fire District was created in 1961. One option is to pass a tax increase in the Nov. 8 election. The other is to join the San Diego County Fire Protection District, which would relieve local taxpayers the burden of funding its own Special District for fire and emergency services. The option of joining the San Diego County Fire District faces an almost insurmountable obstacle. It takes a majority vote of the BSFPD Directors to dissolve the District in order to start negotiations with the County. At this point, the Directors do not seem inclined to consider this option.

However, there is a process to override the Directors. According to Keene Simmonds, LAFCO executive director, “Citizens can initiate a dissolution of a special district in one of two petition formats. One way is for 25%, or more of the voters within the district to sign a petition requesting dissolution.

“The second way is for 25%, or more of the landowners with 25% or more of the land value within the district to sign a petition requesting dissolution. Regardless of the format, the first and last signature need to be signed within six months of each other. Also, there would need to be a successor agency willing to assume service responsibilities and any liabilities – including pension,” Simmonds concluded.

Lucky Borrego Springs, as part of the County’s comprehensive fire and emergency services plan for rural, unincorporated communities, the County Fire District has an interest in assuming service responsibilities and liabilities of the BSFPD. This, however, would happen only, “If, and, only if, consolidation is initiated by Borregans,” County Supervisor Jim Desmond told the Borrego Sun.

When it comes to dissolving the district and negotiating a service contract with the County, both Supervisor Desmond and Chief of the San Diego Fire District, Tony Mecham, have repeatedly stated any decision to join the County Fire District, “Must come from the people of Borrego.”

Chief Mecham is not authorized by his employers, the County Board of Supervisors, to be a sales rep, soliciting business; and telling a community “What’s best for them” is not Jim Desmond’s style.

So, it’s ultimately up to the community to choose. Decisions about placing a tax measure on the ballot must be made very soon.

Bruce Kelley has valiantly tried to get citizens involved, and worked with the Fire Chief to assess how different, if at all, a new increase would look from the 2018 measure. Of concern is that the economy is not that great and local taxpayers may be hard pressed to fund new taxes this year. Besides coming up with a reasonable dollar increase, a grassroots committee has a number of serious obligations to meet in order to be on the ballot, beginning with an August 12 deadline for filing the resolution (tax increase details) and 178 plus valid signatures of Borrego Spring’s registered voters to qualify for the ballot.

There is another third option: Do nothing. Failing to mount a tax increase campaign this year, or in 2024, means the large investment the tax payers and donors have made over the past 61 years will continue to depreciate in both services and equipment. With each year, inflation, and real costs of replacing capital and machinery will only increase, leaving the community and the employees further behind, using faulty even, dangerously aged emergency equipment; vehicles past their prime; a fire station that does not conform with earthquake codes, and personnel that are inadequately compensated compared with County peers.

Firefighters/paramedics throughout the county all bear the same responsibility to respond quickly to a life-threatening emergency, treat victims, make accurate medical calls for air evacuation or ground transportation, and save lives. However, in Borrego when minutes count, response times fail to meet county requirements; inexperienced and underpaid paramedics are often heading the crew; and some medical equipment is no longer reliable by County standards.

Statistically, accident and heart attack victims, as well as fatalities due to the terrain and outdoor dangers, are more likely in Borrego than many other communities. The chance to play catchup, and provide the Gold Star standards the District’s founders envisioned, grows further from the taxpayers’ reach, and service that’s critical to saving lives, slowly becomes less viable.

History is important. When the District was created in 1961, it was visionary and bold. At that time, the County was not committed to funding rural emergency and fire-fighting services. People in the back country were making due with volunteers, a few special district assessments, and any available help from the state’s CalFire Agency. That changed over the past eight years, beginning with a County Charter amendment, making rural firefighting/paramedic services an essential element of the County’s financial and management responsibilities, and LAFO approval of the new County consolidated fire district in 2020.

When San Diego County jumped into providing emergency and fire services, it did so in a big way. The plan was providing a map of coordinated services, providing maximum coverage and protection throughout the rural areas. They contracted with the experts – CalFire – to manage the new County Fire District. When the last volunteer fire department in Julian joined the County Fire District, only special service districts remained. Many of these have either been forced, or decided due to the cost of funding their own districts, or other practical reasons, to join the County Fire District.

A word about Julian. Over and over people say, “Julian is the cautionary example of the political divisions erupting in a community over the issue of the home-grown guys, versus big brother who doesn’t keep promises.” It was Julian’s own board of directors that asked to consolidate; it was a uniformed backlash that kept the town and San Diego hypnotized by the battle that went from recalls, to LAFCO and, eventually, the courts for settlement.

While, for defenders of the Volunteer Department it was a loyal, well-earned tribute to the folks who were willing to risk their lives for their town without a paycheck. However, it wasn’t an objective or well thought out appreciation of Julian’s extreme level of wildfire danger. One fact lost in all the hoopla was the over the top fire insurance town residents were looking at without adequate fire protection services in place.

Just so, Borrego residents, extremely dependent on local paramedical and ambulance services, are being forced, some begrudgingly by changes, the times, and costs of maintaining a fire/paramedic district to reconsider the advantageous of funding its own special district.

The Choices:

1. Community campaign to place a tax increase on the Nov. 8 ballot to raise the revenues needed to keep Borrego’s “own” locally funded and controlled Fire District with its own board of directors and fire chief in charge.

Note: The Proposed budget for 2021-22 is $1,945,111. This includes a projected contribution of revenue from ambulance transports of $250,000. When Julian joined the County Fire District, its budget went from $440,000 to $1.2 million.

2) Legally dissolve the Borrego District and negotiate a service contract with the County Fire District, coming under the authority of the County Board of Supervisors as the board of directors, and CalFire management.

The BSFPD Board of Directors, chaired by Brad Tidwell, a 20-year veteran of the board, believes Borrego is “Best served by and deserves its own Fire District.”

Therein lies the conundrum. Facts versus fiction, rumor versus reality; and practical versus personal feelings are coloring every context in which the future of the local fire district is discussed. The community needs to filter out the white noise, confirm the facts for itself, and objectively address the issues.

The biggest and most important piece of the puzzle to tease out is: Cost to taxpayers.

What’s needed first is a Performance Audit. In other words, what are the taxpayers getting for their money? As mentioned before, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) does that, but on a rotational basis. According to Simmonds, the last time Borrego had a performance review was 16 years ago in 2007. Simmonds stated that Borrego is scheduled for a performance audit sometime in the next two years. This would be too late to evaluate the value of a tax increase; and the real cost of a first-class fire and emergency District, unless Borrego is able to pressure the agency to move up the schedule in advance of any ballot proposals.

The Ballot Measure:

Any tax increases under discussion for the ballot will not solve the salary and personnel retention problems. Specifically, the District cannot afford to compete with the County Fire District’s pension and retirement programs.

A tax increase as proposed, according to BSFPD Chief John Hardcastle, will not solve the District’s inability to improve its response times, or put another ambulance on the road, or immediately purchase the new vehicles that have long passed the warranty.

It will, however, keep the district from closing down the ambulance service and provide some salary incentives. It will also keep the District intact, as a Special District, locally funded and controlled.

San Diego County Fire Protection District:

- Removes local tax assessment for the BSFPD;

- Brings all employees up to CAL/FIRE salaries, and benefits; (CALFIRE salaries and benefits, including pension are 50% over what Borrego Springs Fire Protection District pays);

- Recommends a budget increase of at least $750,000;

- Funds the operation of two fully staffed ambulances, rather than the one currently operated by the District;

- Buys or replaces the aged vehicles;

- And, suggests financing a new fire station that meets County codes.

Nothing above are promises, they represent discussions about what CALFIRE would recommend for Borrego Springs. The actual terms of service and capital funding must be negotiated with all stakeholders: The community, Board of Directors, Firefighters Association; and the County Board of Supervisors.

The result is an official contract with the county spelling out in detail the funding, services and capital replacements/ improvements to be funded.

Some have worried, “Can we count on the county to keep its promises?”

Does anyone doubt the County’s ability to provide Sheriffs’ protection? Besides having Supervisor Desmond, a huge advocate of the community on the County Fire District Board, Courts are prone to enforce county contracts.

When it comes to another question, “Whether the County will run out of money in the future?”, one might just as well suggest that will happen when “The Earthquake” causes the Pacific Plate on which Borrego Springs sits to be set adrift in the Pacific Ocean, separated from the North American Plate and Continent.

Enough with silly questions. It’s your decision Borrego; choose well. The facts are out there, they just have to be communicated; and the decision regarding the future of the community’s fire and paramedic emergency services is debated.

Facts: Borrego Springs Fire Protection District was founded in 1961;2004 was the first tax increase ballot proposition; 2018 was the second attempt by the District to raise taxes.

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