Borrego Sun - Since 1949

BSFPD or CalFire: Communicating Options

 

Last updated 5/4/2022 at 12:15pm



Bruce Kelley became concerned about financial problems facing the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District (BSFPD) after meetings with local paramedics, who were attempting to muster up a grassroots campaign to host a tax increase for the District as a November 2022, ballot measure. After losing the needed increase placed on the ballot by the District in 2018, the payroll issues impacting employee retention and morale, and public safety had only grown worse over the four-year period.

Kelley, who likes to solve problems, immediately convened a local “Steering Committee” of community activists to look into mounting a campaign. However, as they looked deeper into the finances of the District, they noticed, as did the Borrego Sun, that the proposed 300-percent tax increase was only a band aid, and would not solve the District’s immediate and long-term financial problems.

Just as the Sun had reached out to the San Diego County Fire Protection District (SDCFPD) for an assessment of the true financial costs to bring the Borrego District in line with SDCFPD consolidations, the Steering Committee set its watchdog eyes on comparisons, as well as the fact that the District could join the County Fire District with all its advantages at no new costs.

Thinking what the County offered might be too good to be true, they vetted the rural departments that had joined the County Fire District to see if the County kept its promises. And, indeed, if the emergency capacities really improved after joining.

Jim Wilson, who talked to individuals and visited these rural fire stations, said, “I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned.”

Using Ocotillo as an example of a small problem area that had constantly been under a series of unsuccessful contracts with other districts, Wilson pointed out that, “There was brand new, modern equipment and vehicles, specifically designed for fires and emergencies in such a rugged sandy terrain. And, as promised, there would be new housing for Ocotillo’s own emergency crews that were receiving CalFire standard salaries and benefits.

“Findings from visits to Sunrise Summit to Ranchita proved the County District lived up to its promises,” Wilson stated on a recent Zoom meeting. The one problem area, Julian, where a contentious community battle had been fought over retaining a volunteer department, included interviews with a former volunteer fireman and Captain that opposed the consolidation.

Both admitted, “Joining the County District was proving to be beneficial and after a rocky start, things were working smoothly.”

The Committee created a Medical Advisory Group, headed by Borrego Springs senior paramedic, Captain Jim Higgins. Higgins, along with Dr. Dick Fausel, Charles Collum, and Bill Hinton explored the medical impacts of a transition to County Fire.

Without making a recommendation on the choice between Borrego’s Special District and the County, Captain Higgins did state, “The Country District offered more at less cost to Borrego taxpayers.”

As the Committee, led by Kelley, moved from planning a tax initiative to gathering facts about two options, it was decided, they would not make a recommendation, but simply advise the Borrego Community of what they had learned. The choice between paying more for local control versus consolidating with the County Fire Department, they agreed, should be left to property owners, footing the bill.

“The Steering Committee will remain neutral about the options until it has received input from all groups. Then we will present both the results of our meetings and our recommendation to the Board of the BSFPD. We hope to do that during the Board’s regular meeting May 12, “ advised Kelley.

Kelley researched a tax increase for the Borrego District that was more than a band aid, and would almost, if not quite, offer all the capital improvements the County could provide. It was an increase that would provide a higher level of service and shorten the growing gap between providing the essential emergency services and the District’s budget. This was done with the assistance of Borrego’s Fire Chief John Hardcastle.

The tax increase the Steering Committee recommended for the ballot initiative proved to be nearly 600 percent higher (actually 5.6 times higher) than the original proposed 300 percent ballot-measure-increase. From the 2004 current tax rate of $75 dollars for a single-family residence, the District’s recommended tax increase would be $255.

However, according to Kelley, to match the County’s emergency program the new tax on a single-family residence would need to increase by 5.6 times, and the tax on a single-family residence would jump from $75 to $422 annually.

Armed with new information, the Steering Committee put the brakes on organizing a ballot measure, and instead, decided to take what they had uncovered to the community. Their decision was that the community should decide whether folks wanted to suck it up and increase property taxes to maintain local control of the emergency services, or decertify the District, and join the County Fire District with no new taxes.

Kelley pointed out that the Steering Committee has sponsored one community meeting, presented its findings to eight community organizations and to individual residents in three community meetings. Between now and May 8, the group will present two more community organizations and residents in one more community meeting. At the close of the meetings attendees are invited to take a straw poll on which option they would support.

“The meetings are proving very useful in informing our organizations and residents, and in coalescing opinion about what is the best future path to pursue. We do not want to bias the straw poll that will be taken in the last community meeting. So, we are not releasing the results of straw poll voting to date,” he said.

One of the key concerns arising from the meetings revolved around protecting the current personnel.

“Residents’ major issue was how would our Paramedics and the emergency medical response services be affected if Borrego Springs were to transition services to County Fire/CAL FIRE. The information the Steering Committee collected from our Fire District and from County Fire showed that paramedics’ jobs would be protected under either option. A six-fold tax increase would bring their pay almost to CAL FIRE levels, but the value of their benefits would still be 60% less than if they were CAL FIRE employees, Kelley noted.

“Also, our ambulance, fire engine and fire station would be updated more quickly by County Fire than would be possible by the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District even after the tax increase.”

Betsy Knaak agreed, “The meetings are going well. It’s a serious issue, and many people have taken time to attend the meetings, listen to the presentation, and ask great questions. The presentation materials are well organized and researched. Bruce Kelley’s leadership, skills, and time (put into) this effort have been phenomenal.

“The number one concern is for our dedicated staff at our Borrego Springs Fire Protection District, if there was a change to County/CalFire: Will our staff be protected in their jobs? (Yes) Can they stay in Borrego if they choose? (Yes) Will anyone lose their job? (No).”

Shirley Vialponda also praised Kelley, stating that, “He deserves all the accolades as convener and leader of this dedicated group whose one purpose is to improve the lives of our firemen and EMT’s.

“From what I understand about the reception of our efforts from many members of our community, I’m more than sure that our hero’s over there on Stirrup Road are going to find their lives significantly enhanced and that will most certainly result in even more protection of Borrego lives and property, she concluded.

Steering Committee members include: Martha Diechler, Captain Jim Higgins, Diane Johnson, Jim Wilson, Harry Turner, Dan Wright, Dave Duncan, Rich Pinel, Betsy Knaak, Israel Ochoa, and Shirley Vialpondo. Jim Wermers serves as an advisor and Bruce Kelley informally chairs, and provides staff support.

BSFPD* Current Situation

Staff of 14

Chief; Admin; Three Captains (One Paramedic, Two EMTs); Three Engineer/Paramedics; Six Firefighter/Paramedics

Four on Duty per Shift

One Captain (Paramedic or EMT)

One Engineer (Paramedic)

Two Firefighter/Paramedics

Staffing of Equipment

One front line Ambulance staffed with one EMT + one Paramedic or two Paramedics

One front line Engine staffed with two Paramedics or one Paramedic + one EMT

When one front line Ambulance is transporting, the Engine staff will respond (if Captain on duty is a Paramedic or if type of call only requires one Paramedic)

The next closest engine would be moved to Borrego to assist

Major Equipment

Ambulance needs to be replaced and equipped (≈$375,000); new engine (≈$700,000) needs to be ordered

Facilities

Fire Station does not meet code; budget insufficient to update it.

Would need second fire station with equipment and staff to meet response time standards

Budget

Current Budget of $1,928,000 (including $248,500 current supplemental taxation)

Reserve Fund of $230,000 to replace equipment and facilities

Tax

With 5.6-Fold Tax Increase: Additional taxes in 2023 of $1,148,000 would bring budget to $3,076,000. Would bring wages to CalFire level, benefits to 40% of CAL FIRE value plus contribute $275,000 per year to capital reserve fund. An escalator in taxes would be needed to keep up with inflation. More taxes or major donations would be needed to replace fire house. second fire house likely unattainable.

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What SDCFPD** Would Offer Borrego Springs

Staff of 17

Guarantee jobs in Borrego Springs for our current staff & will add three Engineer/EMTs

Five on Duty per Shift

One Captain (Paramedic or EMT)

One Engineer (Paramedic)

One Engineer (EMT)

Two Firefighter/Paramedics

Staffing of Equipment

One front line Ambulance staffed with one EMT + one Paramedic or two Paramedics

One front line Engine staffed with three Paramedics or two Paramedics + one EMT

When one front line Ambulance is transporting, the Engine staff will respond in the second Ambulance

The next closest engine would be moved to Borrego to assist

Major Equipment

All existing BSFPD equipment would be replaced on the SDCFPD cycle of 15 years for an engine and seven years for an ambulance

Facilities

Immediate repairs and updates would be made to the existing fire station

A replacement station would be added to the SDCFPD Capital Improvement

Plan and valued at $18 million

At some point in future would provide staff, equipment & second fire house to meet response time standards

Budget

Would increase current budget by $1,500,000 to $3,428,000 in 2024

Capital Reserve Plan funded from County General Fund

Tax

SDCFPD funding is from County’s General Fund

Borrego Springs’ supplemental tax would not be withdrawn, but there would be no tax increases

*BSFPD: Borrego Springs Fire Protection District

**SDCFPD: San Diego County Fire Protection District (SDCFPD) would only propose to serve Borrego Springs if Board of BSFPD requests a proposal.

An offering of services by SDCFPD would be subject to negotiations between the Board of BSFPD, SDCFPD, the Borrego Springs Firefighter’s Association, and LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Committee Organization). The outcome of negotiations would then need to be approved by the County Board of Supervisors.

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