Borrego Sun - Since 1949

CalFire: Overwhelming Vote

Ninety-eight percent want to join SD County Fire Protection District/CalFire

 

Last updated 6/2/2022 at 9:22am



The Borrego Springs Firefighters Association, Local 4160, has also voted for consolidation with the San Diego County Fire Protection District. (See press release given to the Borrego Sun, May 20, in the May 26 issue).

The five-member Board of Directors of the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District (BSFPD) was presented with the facts gathered by a committee of community advocates that have been researching options for dealing with the local District’s financial problems, May 12, at the monthly Board meeting via Zoom.

In addition to offering conclusions and recommendations, the Steering Committee, which was initially created to put a District tax increase on the November General Election Ballot, shared the results of an informal poll taken after every meeting the group held with community residents. The poll, which was taken by more than 200 Borregan’s, revealed the community, after comparing the facts on two alternative paths to address the District’s serious issues, voted overwhelming to dissolve Borrego’s Special District and consolidate with the San Diego County Fire Protection District (SDCFPD), which is managed by CalFire.

BSFPD Chief John Hardcastle said that the presentation will be discussed at the June Directors’ Meeting on Zoom, and that he believed the BSFPD will, “Follow the will of the people.”

An informal poll handed out after each of the 13 community meetings where Bruce Kelley and the Steering Committee discussed the Borrego Fire District’s financial issues, and possible solutions, showed 98% opted for joining the SDCFPD compared with 2% willing to increase taxes to retain Borrego’s exclusive fire and paramedic service district.

The Committee Findings

“The Borrego Springs Fire Protection District’s challenges with staffing, equipment replacement, facility improvement, and budget are so significant that a 6-fold increase in supplemental real property taxes would be needed to address staff compensation immediately, and equipment and facility upgrades in future years. Additional taxes or major donations would still be needed to replace the fire house,” which is currently in violation of county safety codes.

For a single-family resident this would mean an increase of the 2004 tax of $75 to $422.

SDCFPD has proposed staffing, equipment replacement, facility upgrades and replacement, and a budget that is superior to what a six-fold local tax increase would allow BSFPD to support.

The group rehashed their work to educate themselves, investigating the options from January to April, pointing out they have been researching financials for the District, meeting with Chief John Hardcastle on the budget and disparities in even the 2018 tax measure the Board proposed, but lost the two-thirds necessary vote. That proposed increase was only a three-fold increase of the 2004 set tax rate. After the research and discussions with Captain Tony Mecham on what the County would propose, the group became convinced that it didn’t make sense to burden Borrego tax payers for what would essentially be band aids, when the County could solve the financial and service problems without a tax increase.

“I really started gathering community members to mount a tax increase for the BSFPD on the November 2022 ballot. We named ourselves “The Steering Committee” for this purpose. As we began researching the amount of tax dollars needed for the ballot measures, we discovered how big the problem was. We contacted the County Fire District to get some comparable standards,” Bruce Kelley said.

“In the process of counseling us on the costs to bring the Borrego District up to County Standards and benefits, we found the local tax increase needed to be six times the current tax. We then began to research consolidating with the County Fire Department/CALFIRE as an option that provide greater benefits and with NO tax increase.”

In a letter from the Borrego Village Association, Dave Duncan, Treasurer, noted, “While the merger makes fiscal sense, merging with CalFire/San Diego County Fire will also benefit the community with enhanced services and will meet the critical equipment needs the BSFPD are unable to meet with their current budget.”

Then to get a feel for what the community wanted, the Steering Committee took their findings to 11 community meetings, in addition to hosting one public meeting and a meeting with the Latino community.

As a result of these meetings, organizations including, the Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group, Borrego Springs Youth and Seniors Center, Inc., Borrego Village Association, endorsed a transition to the County Fire District.

“After listening to a presentation about the Committee’s findings of community members’ options, and after considering the options, we agree with the assessment that it would be advantageous to seek a transition to the SDCFPD” – Rebecca Falk, Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group Chairperson.

“The Youth and Seniors Board supports good faith negotiation between all agencies involved in order to make a smooth transition toward a long-term solution for fire protection and emergency medical services in Borrego Springs without additional taxation” – Daniel Wright, President of the Board of Directors.

Discussions and meetings were also held with the BSFA, Local 4160. The consensus was that the Union will support what the local residents want.

To counter concerns about the County not living up to its promises, Committee members made site visits and met with neighboring fire stations that have joined the County’s CALFIRE District from Sunrise Summit, Ranchita, and Julian, to Ocotillo Wells. Jim Wilson was one of the members that visited the other County Fire Stations, and interviewed the personnel.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the favorable evidence I saw and heard from the fire personnel about the transitions,” said Wilson.

From the findings, the Committee gave the BSFPD Directors their conclusions “that even with a significant tax increase, BSFPD will not be able to compete with the benefits offered by SDCFPD; and that the vast majority of the residents, given the comparisons, support a transition to the County; and would be unlikely to support a tax increase.

“Given this situation,” the Steering Committee explained, “it will not sponsor a citizen’s ballot initiative for a local tax increase;” and, further, “Recommended that the BSFPD Board of Directors request from the County the terms, and conditions for transitioning fire and paramedic services. Subsequently, if the Board after discussions with the County believes the agreement it negotiates will be in the community’s greater interest, it will likely request decertification of the present special District.”

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Borrego’s special fire and paramedic district must be dissolved in order to consolidate with the County’s service district. There are only three ways to do this.

First, is that the Board of the BSFPD acknowledges the findings and agrees to initiate negotiations with the County. IF an agreement is met, the Board must vote to dissolve BSFPD.

The second way is for 25% of property owners to submit a petition for decertification of the District to the Local Agency Formation Committee (LAFCO) and the County Board of Supervisors. If the community feels the need to override the inactions or actions of the Board on this issue, the residents may place a recall measure of the Board of Directors on the November ballot. This would open up the vote to also elect new Board Members that favor consolidation with the County and dissolution of the taxing authority of the local District.

The response from the Board was non-committal. Chairman Bradley Tidwell simply thanked the committee for their presentation, with no indication they would take up the issue. The Board has only one meeting in June, prior to taking a summer break.

There were some questions and comments from Board Members Paul Reisman and Elizabeth Reisman (Paul Reisman’s daughter). There are two families on the board, in addition to the Reisman’s, Ann Marie Tidwell, Chairman Tidwell’s wife, is a director. Director Fred Jee rounds out the five-person board.

Paul Reisman countered, during the presentation, that he preferred to do his own research. Making one wonder where he has been the past 12 years he has served. The Board did not intervene in increasing budget gaps from 2004 to 2018, when they sponsored what was only the second tax increase for voters to approve. Reisman, who does not live in Borrego Springs, was confirmed in 2010 or 2016 by fiat.

Chief Hardcastle claims all Board Members own property in Borrego Springs and are registered voters here. However, research shows that the Reisman’s live in Mountain Center.

When Paul Reisman ran there were two seats open with him and one incumbent running. Since the two met the requirement for electing two board members, the vote was not placed on the ballot. Therefore, he was confirmed without a vote of Barragan’s, and has maintained his seat in the same way. This single rule of the County Registrar’s has ensured that board appointees and applicants, as long as there are only two persons named, with no challengers, have never been put to a vote by the people. Most of the Board have earned and retained their seats by being appointed, and never facing an election. Chairman Tidwell has served for 20 years. Yet they are called, “elected Board Members.”

When asked about having a backup plan in case another attempt to increase taxes failed, as quoted previously in the Borrego Sun, Chairman Tidwell directed the reporter to the Fire Chief Hardcastle, and Fred Jeep opined that “there were too many factors in play to develop a backup strategy.”

Elizabeth Reisman questioned the group about their positive feedback from County-run fire stations. She pointed out that by asking only the personnel now under CALFIRE management, the Committee was representing only one side, inferring a preference for the County District. She asked the presenters how many community people they interviewed and if community members were happy with the transition to the SDCFPD. She reported knowing people in Julian who were not pleased.

Betsy Knaak, a Steering Committee member, reported that at every meeting they attended, the future and protection of the District’s paramedics was the number one concern.

“People love the paramedics and wanted assurances they would not lose their jobs, but actually benefit from the salary, benefits, and pension increases the County/CALFIRE said they would provide. We were adamant in discussions about retaining employees, that no deal was possible without protecting our paramedics.”

“In addition to a process called blanketing in which existing employees are given the option to stay or to leave, there are County codes protecting employees caught in these types of situations,” Knaak disclosed.

The Medical Committee conceded that, “There was no comparison between the better benefits offered by the County.” The Medical Committee is composed of Jim Higbee, Borrego Springs Captain and senior paramedic, a retired physician and the director of Mercy Air.

Elizabeth Reisman also challenged the committee to review the community response from each transition for a fair evaluation. To which might be noted, the Borrego community was not aware of the BSFPD’s funding crisis to the point that in 18 months paramedic ambulance service would be discontinued, nor the low morale and concern among the district’s personnel, until the Borrego Sun and the Steering Committee began exploring the issues. Community people rely on the professionals and their Boards to protect their interests; be transparent; and solve problems. In this case, it took a group of concerned volunteers.

“We let the facts speak for themselves,” stated Kelley, adding that, “The Committee purposefully held off biasing the discussions or making recommendations, until the meeting with the BSFPD Board.The Steering Committee originally came together to organize a campaign for increasing taxes for the fire department. We did not come into this situation predisposed to challenge BSFPD’s operations. As we continued down the rabbit hole in the search for what served the community best and at what cost, we kept our personal opinions on which option we felt was best from entering any of the presentations at meetings.”

What will the Borrego Springs District Board do? They have only one more meeting in June before they take their summer break. Maybe, they should skip the summer break and consider moving forward on what the Community and their own employees want. Remember words like financial problems to describe the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District translate into real human impacts such as the standard of living of the emergency personnel and their ability to save lives – our lives in an emergency.

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