Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Official: BSFPD Transitions to Cal Fire


Last updated 9/14/2023 at 10:49am

As of July 1, 2023, the Borrego Springs Fire District have officially transitioned into Cal Fire San Diego County Fire.

The SDCFPD is managed and staffed under a contract with the state's Department of Cal Fire.

"After months of research and dialogue with Chief Tony Mecham and other County fire officials, and BSFPD Captain John Hardcastle, the County offer of adding $7.2 million to the district's budget; adding personnel to Cal Fire membership; purchasing new medical equipment along with replacements for a fire engine, and two new ambulances, as well as replacing the outdated fire department building, without raising taxes, was an offer the Borrego Fire District Board could not practically refuse." Borrego Sun, August 2022.

Currently, the County has added $750,000 to the Borrego Springs station, and placed $18 million in the County's five-year capital improvement budget for a new fire station. One of the two new ambulances is on deck (price tag for the two ambulances is $550,000). An ambulance belonging to the SDCFP is back up until the second new ambulance arrives. The $900,000 new fire truck has been ordered with a typical year's wait.

"By taking over the fire district of Borrego Springs, the County of San Diego is committed to enhancing the community's well-being. We recognize the need for improved facilities, and thus, we are planning to construct a new fire station. We envision a comprehensive approach that goes beyond fire services alone. We are exploring the possibility of building a clinic next to the fire station, ensuring easy access to healthcare for the residents," Supervisor Jim Desmond said.

"Through careful planning and allocation of resources, we aim to create a thriving community that caters to the needs of all residents. These updated services, including the clinic and senior housing, will undoubtedly benefit Borrego Springs, fostering a more robust and healthier future for everyone."

Wearing hats as Directors of the San Diego County Fire Protection District (SDCFPD), the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Supervisor Jim Desmond's request to dissolve the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District (BSFPD) and transfer it to the San Diego County Fire Protection District, back in October 2022.

Bruce Kelley, a member of the citizens coalition that advocated for a solution to the Borrego Fire District's financial woes, said, "Last year, a Task Force of leading volunteers in Borrego Springs addressed the budget, personnel retention and recruitment and equipment needs of our Fire District. The Task Force found that more than a 10-fold tax increase would not equal the support County Fire/Cal Fire would fund from existing County taxes.

"Cal Fire guaranteed the jobs of our crew while offering better pay, benefits and training. It committed to purchasing new ambulances and a fire engine and to replacing our fire station. County Fire also ensures more organizational stability and financial sustainability. The Task Force found tremendous, almost unanimous support in the community for the transition," he said.

Cal Fire Unit Chief Tony Mecham, who led the county's response to Borrego's interest in joining the regional fire district and ultimate membership in the SDCFPD, stated the whole process was extremely smooth, without any obstacles from either the county, regarding the new station's budget to LAFCO approval.

"There was a spirit of cooperation between the district employees as we addressed the county's changes. The local union – Borrego Springs Firefighter's Association, IAFF Local 4160 – was extremely supportive."

One of the major issues caused by the district's financial problems was the inability to pay competitive salaries and benefits to the professionals, leaving the district unable to recruit and keep well trained, experienced paramedics or fire prevention engineers. "As someone said, "If you are having a heart attack, you want the most experienced paramedics, not the interns, knocking at your door."

A transition concern expressed by local community members centered around protecting existing crews, and their future. Every person who wanted to stay with the station and transition into the SDCFPD/Cal Fire had the option to do so. The state's employees are among the highest paid in the nation, and by becoming employees of Cal Fire through the transfer, Borrego's loyal and long-term fire teams received a substantial raise in both their paychecks and morale.

Additionally, the number of personnel on duty is being increased, thanks to a change in state law to three or four paramedics assigned to an ambulance.

Former Fire Chief John Hardcastle was made a station commander, and according to Capt. Mecham, "is exploring his options." The county is also building temporary housing for the crews. "The old station was not just 'not up to code,' with closer examination the facility was worse than we expected," he reported.

Looking to the future, the county is looking at a site by the library for the new fire station, which would improve both the response time and allow for the creation of a service complex where a coordination of the community's needs and services could be better met.

For example, a new clinic could be built there, which, along with the fire station, heliport, could address medical emergency services at one site. "By employing a family nurse practitioner, the fire department could fill the need for medical attention during evenings and weekends when the clinic is closed," suggested Mecham.

According to the Capt., a group of local leaders are envisioning a service complex or resource center next to the library, and sheriff's station, combining a new clinic, fire station, social services resource center, along with senior and children's centers to provide a new synergy for the community, not to mention a solution to a number of the communities funding and service gaps.

In Supervisor Desmond's original board letter, he wrote, "The proposed dissolution and annexation will enhance fire protection and emergency services to all residents and tourists. Borrego Springs has been designated a disadvantaged unincorporated community by LAFCO; and due to the small population and rural area, the BSFPD has been unable to provide the same level of services to its residents as other areas of the county. This includes a reduced level of staff on engines and outdated medical equipment.

"By including Borrego Springs into the SDCFPD, rural residents in our county will have equitable access to emergency services that save lives and protect property."

The October 11 Board letter detailed the fiscal impacts of the annexation of the BSFPD, beginning in 2023 – 24. These included, but were not limited to: an estimated cost of approximately $7.2 million, in combined ongoing costs of $2.2 million, necessary to provide an equitable level of fire protection and emergency medical services; along with one-time costs (of up to $5 million) associated with the lifetime pension and costs, facilities maintenance and a loan repayment.

The BSFPD board had previously taken out a bank loan of $1.9 million to relieve long-term pension liabilities with CalPERS. The County must assume the loan.

During a public Zoom meeting on August 25, 2022, the BSFPD Board of Directors voted 3 – 2 to adopt a "Resolution of Application" to initiate proceedings with the San Diego County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to dissolve the Borrego Special Fire District and apply for consolidation with the County fire district.

Voting in favor of the resolution were Board Chairman Brad Tidwell, Board Members AnnMarie Tidwell, and Fred Jee. The opposing votes came from Paul Reisman and daughter, Elizabeth Reisman.

The original District, over the years, found it increasingly difficult to provide the desired, and mandated level of services with the small Borrego Springs' tax base and rising costs of operating a modern fire and emergency services district. The majority of emergency calls in Borrego are for paramedic health services, due to Borrego's large population of senior citizens.

And, as a tourist destination, the BSFPD has responsibility for protecting large gatherings of tourists on the highways, golf courses, the Anza-Borrego Desert Park, and at-large community events.

The District's equipment, including fire trucks and ambulances were outdated, and without capital funds to purchase new ones, the district would have to continue operating with outdated medical equipment, vehicles and the existing fire station, which does not meet county safety codes.

Community members committed to finding a solution to the District's financial woes, originally formed a committee (Steering Committee) to place a tax increase on November's 2022-General Election ballot. In the process of assessing how much was needed to make the District whole, it became clear to committee members that the cost could run 10 times the current residential tax of $145.

The district board had placed a three % tax increase on the 2018 ballot, which failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority. The reality of residents voting to pay for a 10% increase, or even lesser amounts to patch a few problems, did not seem likely, given the current economic environment.

The "Steering Committee" staffed by Bruce Kelley, then led an effort to advise the community of the options, which, in addition to a 6% tax increase ballot initiative, was the opportunity to join the San Diego County Fire Protection District with no tax increase.

After vetting the option with similar, neighboring rural fire districts that had joined the County Fire District, and presenting their findings to local community groups; the Steering Committee brought the summary of their efforts, including 98% community support to consolidate with the County fire district, to the BSFPD Board with a request the Board of Directors dissolve the local special district and join the San Diego County Fire District.

The BSFPD was apparently created in 1961, with the first and only tax increase in 2008 (the records are fuzzy) by local residents to fund a higher level of emergency services in the Borrego Springs area, which included paramedic, EMT, and ground ambulance services. At that time, emergency first responders were Deputy Sheriffs contracted by the county, or came from the state firefighting (CALFIRE) 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 included emergency services. The San Diego County Fire Protection District is funded through the county's General Fund. Cal Fire is contracted to manage and staff the rural district. With the addition of Borrego Springs, the SDCFPD operates 42 fire stations, 22 of which are staffed by County Fire. There are Three Deer Springs Fire District Stations, and 19 CAL FIRE stations, covering a 1.7 million-acre service area.

When voters added fire protection to the County Charter, and as SDCFPD has grown its service areas, adding stations with positive results, a number of special districts joined the rural fire district. Where, in most cases, there was a higher level of services, while lowering taxes. For Borrego residents the transfer from a locally controlled special district to membership in the regional district included benefits such as: elimination of 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 SCDFPD, comes 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 were being double- taxed for fire protection and paramedic services – The County tax and the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District Tax. By joining the county's fire district, property owners now pay one tax: The same, one time tax all San Diego County residents pay.

Betsy Knaak, a member of the citizens group that led the effort, said, "I believe the transition to County/Cal Fire is one of the most beneficial events for the community in the history of Borrego Springs."

She also noted that, "There will be a public ceremony honoring the transition, which residents will be able to attend during Borrego Days – details to be announced."

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