By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
At its July 6 meeting, the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District board voted 4-3 to return to a “stand-alone” status and walk away from its contract with Cal Fire.
San Miguel Fire, which serves Mt. Helix, unincorporated parts of La Mesa and other nearby communities, relinquished control of operations to Cal Fire in 2012 after the district ran into budget problems.
Before the board voted to leave Cal Fire, it also voted against conducting an independent study on the feasibility of returning to a stand-alone district.
During public comments before the vote, resident Rick Augustine said a study would make it clear to the public what the right decision would be.
“You guys are locked politically with one group adamantly believing that they are going down the right path and the other group adamantly believing that they’re going down the right path,” Augustine said. “There has to be something wrong with the information.”
Former San Miguel Fire District board member and retired chief from the San Diego City Fire Department Chris Brainard said an independent study was unnecessary because San Miguel Fire’s Chief Financial Officer Darilyn O’Dell, who conducted a micro-study that supported the move to leave Cal Fire, has always kept “a balanced budget with numbers that can be counted on and or vetted and are shown to be true and accurate.”
Brainard said an independent study would just be a tactic to delay the vote by opponents of the stand-alone district and added that a delay would also affect the Cal Fire employees who will need to find new departments to work for when the district replaces them with the former employees, who have the right to return to their old jobs at San Miguel.
Patrick Walker, a local union representative of 600 Cal Fire employees, said 70 Cal Fire employees could potentially be laid off from San Miguel and looking for new departments.
After the board rejected the independent study in another 4-3 vote, public comments were opened to speak on the plan to leave Cal Fire, with San Miguel firefighters and their families speaking in favor of the move and residents and Cal Fire employees speaking against it.
Larry Nichols from the Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association said current property values may make it possible for a stand-alone district to balance the books, but he was worried about the next recession. He said the decision should be delayed and that residents should decide whether to leave Cal Fire in a district-wide vote.
Brainard said San Miguel Fire had more expertise before the contract with Cal Fire and that Cal Fire’s high turnover rate made it hard to maintain talent.
Other San Miguel firefighters and their families cited issues with Cal Fire’s long work schedules and extended time away from home. Sandy Lundstrom said the culture at San Miguel changed under Cal Fire and that her son could not get family leave time from Cal Fire while she was battling cancer.
“The brotherhood is gone,” she said. “The professionalism is gone.”
The board then discussed the proposal.
“I don’t understand why we are doing this a year early,” said board member Dave Rickards, adding there is no transition plan in place and other unknowns in returning to a stand-alone. “What if we fail? I see alarm bells.”.
Board member William Kiel said he voted his conscience to not return to a stand-alone, noting his concern that if the district gets in financial problems again, it won’t be able to pay out promised medical and retirement benefits to its firefighters.
Dan McMillan laid out several financial benefits to staying with Cal Fire before casting his no vote against returning to a stand-alone: the district saves money on purchasing fire engines and other equipment because Cal Fire buys in bulk; the $1.8 million training center the board voted to build last year must be built or the money paid back; finances since 2012 have become “more solvent”; and Cal Fire’s structure currently shields the district from lawsuits.
Board president Theresa McKenna and directors Karrie Johnson, Mike Vacio and Jim Eck all cast their votes to leave Cal Fire.
McKenna argued that the district would be in better financial standing as a stand-alone district. She said local control would give the district power over salaries and benefits, as well as the ability to make staffing decisions. She also said the district needed to act quickly, since a stand-alone would be able to safeguard assets like local bond money that will become available soon.
“It’s now or never folks,” she said. “If you want to ensure local control, it’s time to return to a stand-alone.”
After the meeting, former San Miguel Fire district board member Bob Cederdahl questioned the board’s motives because the majority of them are firefighters or family members of firefighters.
“I am 99 percent certain there will soon be raises and additional benefits given to their friends in the department,” Cederdahl said. “When the board has a majority of firefighters, the community loses control.”
McKenna said all salaries and benefits would need to be approved by the board and she refuted Cederdahl’s concerns.
“I can assure you that there will not be a 30 percent rise in salaries for returning San Miguel employees,” she said. “In fact, there will not be any pay raises for those San Miguel employees returning under the terms of the [contract]; they will receive only the same salary and benefits they now receive working as a Cal Fire employee.”
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.