...or why it is common knowledge throughout the fire service in California that San Diego is considered a “welfare county” when it comes to fire protection.
While voters will be blamed for yet another failure to increase taxes for fire protection in San Diego County, they made an intelligent choice in rejecting Proposition A in the 2008 election.
Prop A was an ill-conceived tax proposal that failed to provide a comprehensive plan on how the money was going to be spent and how the county intended to improve public safety. It only offered the same piecemeal approach to fire protection that has plagued San Diego County for years and has been partially responsible for establishing our region's unfortunate record: more lives and homes have been lost here due to wildfires over the past decade than anywhere else in the Western United States. What exactly is wrong with the way San Diego County deals with fire protection and how do we fix the problem?
San Diego County remains the only large urban county in California without its own fire department. Many areas such as Ramona, Cuyamaca and Dulzura are woefully underserved for day-to-day incidents, let alone major wildfires.
The best way to prevent fires from becoming monsters is by jumping on them when they are still small. This cannot be done with inadequate firefighting resources. The San Diego County budget is more than $5 billion. However, the county has only allocated $8.5 million to $15 million per year to support fire protection services. For comparison, Orange County, which is one-fifth the size of San Diego County, spends more than $275 million on its fire department. San Diego County also receives about $250 million from the half-cent sales tax levied by Proposition 172 approved in 1993 (see article before for more details on Prop 172). This money is required to be spent on public safety services, but the county continually has refused to allocate any of this tax revenue for fire protection.
It is common knowledge throughout the fire service in California that San Diego is considered a “welfare county” when it comes to fire protection. This is because it depends heavily on out-of-region fire agencies to fight its own wildfires and cannot adequately reciprocate when other regions need help. Under mutual aid agreements, cities and independent fire districts are continually responding to county emergencies, especially during major events. But mutual aid is not meant to be depended upon for first response.
Although no official will say so publicly, there may come a time when fire agencies will refuse to send firefighting resources to the county during major firestorm events because their first obligation is to their own citizens – the people who paid for the services in the first place.
In an attempt to show the voters “something” is being done to improve fire protection, San Diego County has focused on temporary fixes that provide good press but do little to reduce the threat of wildfire in the long term. While aircraft are essential fire suppression tools, there must be “boots on the ground” to complete the task. No fire can be put out by aircraft alone.
The “super-scooper” planes leased by the county this fall may provide impressive front-page photos, but they are useless when it really matters most – during Santa Ana wind driven wildfires. The planes cannot operate when winds are in excess of 35 mph and do not have nighttime flying capability.
With this choice, county politicians offered the public a political solution rather than one based on science and recommendations from fire professionals. The less flashy Ericson skycrane, a remarkable helicopter that can be flown both at night and in windy conditions, was the preferred choice by county firefighters.
The county's continual promotion of the idea to repeatedly burn the backcountry and protected habitat to get rid of the native vegetation will only lead to the destruction of natural resources and increase the spread of flammable, invasive weeds. While it is popular to falsely blame environmental laws and promote the misconception that chaparral plant communities are “unnaturally” dense due to past fire suppression efforts, such hand waving only diverts attention from what really needs to be done.
To fix the fire protection deficient in San Diego County, five steps need to be taken:
(1) Develop a functional regional fire protection system. Retain an experienced fire and government planning firm to review the multitude of reports already in existence, outline a vision for improvement, identify the fiscal impact, educate the public and elected officials as to its findings, and propose a plan for implementation. This process must be inclusive. All stakeholders must be involved in drafting the scope of the plan, with expenses phased incrementally as the study results are delivered.
(2) Focus on the entire fire risk equation.Too much attention is being placed on wildland vegetation and not on what matters most, creating fire safe communities. People died and homes were lost in the 2007 fires because the entire fire risk reduction equation was never solved. It isn't just about defensible space and aircraft, but a multitude of other factors including building design, volunteer fire brigades that can assist fire suppression activities, public education, and adequately funded regional fire protection.
(3) Code enforcement. Fire protection depends heavily on preparation. The county must dramatically increase its fire code enforcement division or allow and fund local county service areas to pick up the slack.
(4) Remove conflicts of interest. Fire needs to be taken out of the Department of Planning and Land Use and moved to the Office of Emergency Services. Fire protection decisions must be determined by how best to protect lives, property and natural resources, not development pressures.
(5) Funding. The county Board of Supervisors must show the voters they are serious about fire protection by funding a county fire protection system out of their existing budget. About $125 million per year would be a good start.
The California Constitution states, “The protection of the public safety is the first responsibility of local government and local officials have an obligation to give priority to the provision of adequate public safety services.” With proper leadership the county can fulfill this obligation, but it will require an inclusive, collaborative process and a willingness by county politicians to pay for what we need.
Letters to the Editor regarding San Diego County's inadequate funding for fire protection
November 18, 2008
Regarding “Firefighting after Prop. A's defeat” (Opinion, Nov. 14): California Chaparral Institute Director Richard W. Halsey's observations are absolutely correct. This county needs to step up and provide effective fire protection to its citizens. The Board of Supervisors seems to care more about the political attention and glitziness of its spending patterns than the effectiveness and practicality of the resources needed.
Most of the backcountry residents love to hate the county of San Diego, and the lack of serious leadership from the county on fire protection only adds more discontent and distrust. This predicament has created a situation that allows both the county Department of Planning and Land Use, and the local backcountry chiefdoms to secure their special interests by manipulation of fears and promises.
BENT KOCH Julian
November 22, 1008
Proposition A, the parcel tax for fire protection, failed because voters know that there is a history of mismanagement by our county government regarding priorities and funding for public safety. Few doubt the need for additional fire protection resources (especially additional equipment, vehicles and aircraft), and most acknowledge that doing so may require funding.
As a top priority county supervisors need to use existing revenues to help pay for regional fire protection. They should be using money collected under Proposition 172 – the half-cent sales tax California voters approved in November 1993 to fund public safety, both fire and police. That money was nearly $235 million last year and should be better managed.
The county Board of Supervisors has steadfastly opposed reaching into those funds to pay for regional fire services. Why? The supervisors now allocate the bulk of the money – 94.4 percent – to the Sheriff's Department, the District Attorney's Office and the Probation Department. Fourteen cities share the remaining 5.4 percent. It's time that a large portion of those funds be allocated for funding regional fire protection.
RON SERABIA Ramona
Background information on funding for public safety
From the San Diego Union-Tribune February 27, 2008 By Tony Manolatos
A lot of taxpayers can relate to Paul King of Carlsbad, a businessman who had no idea he paid a half-cent tax for public safety with every buck he spent at a coffee shop or hardware store. "With sales tax, nobody has a clue," said King, 51. "It's just a number. You pay it and go."
The tax was approved by California voters in 1993 as Proposition 172. Last year, it generated $2.6 billion. San Diego County's share was $233 million.
While the typical resident may not know about the tax, local governments are keenly aware of every dime it brings in. And some cities, especially those crying poor, want more of the county's portion. The ballot measure was sold as a broad funding source for law enforcement and fire departments. But that's not how it played out.
In San Diego County, the bulk of the money -- 94 percent -- goes to the Sheriff's Department, the District Attorney's Office and the Probation Department. Fourteen cities share the remaining 6 percent. The distribution riles politicians and public safety administrators in San Diego, La Mesa and elsewhere, who are trying to balance thinning budgets without raising taxes. Although the breakdown is similar across the state and governed by California law, taxpayers can vote to change it. City or county leaders also can lobby the Legislature. Short of a statewide initiative -- a long shot at best -- support from county supervisors is needed. And they happen to like the current formula.
"Every fire department in town wants some of that money. But we're not giving up our allocation, period," said Bill Horn, chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "When Prop. 172 was passed, that money was to go to our sheriff and our D.A., and that's where it's going to stay," he said. "I don't care how it was pitched."
While the money initially was used for extras at the Sheriff's Department, it mostly helps to pay the bills now. It accounts for about one-third of the department's $490 million budget for this fiscal year. The department provides law enforcement to about 850,000 of the county's 2.9 million residents. State lawmakers who drafted Proposition 172 legislation needed a way to repay cities and counties -- but mostly counties -- for the billions of dollars in local property taxes they started diverting to education.
While the tax has brought $2.1 billion to San Diego County since taking effect in 1994, it hasn't offset all of the property-tax losses.
The county, for example, lost $2.2 billion over the last dozen years, said Dorothy Thrush, a county finance director. The county's share of the public-safety tax during that period was $1.94 billion. Meanwhile, losses in the city of San Diego totaled $402 million. Its tax allotment: $59 million.
Thirteen years ago, voters were told crime would rise and fire stations would close if they didn't approve Proposition 172. The half-cent tax, which doesn't expire, received 58 percent of the vote. "It was sold as something for all of us, but it all got shuffled to a very small subset," said Richard Rider, chair of San Diego Tax Fighters and former chairman of the county's Libertarian Party.
For the 2005-06 fiscal year, about $156 million of the tax goes to the Sheriff's Department, making it the agency's second-largest revenue source behind property taxes. The District Attorney's Office should receive $44 million, and the Probation Department expects to get $18 million.
City-run police and fire agencies split what's left, meaning most of the 35 rural fire protection agencies -- the ones that would benefit most from a cash infusion -- are shut out. The October 2003 firestorms illustrated just how underequipped these fire districts are.
This year, the county carved out a revenue stream for the most needy, which will split $5.8 million.
Thrush initially said the county spent $32.4 million on fire protection last year. Later, she said the county hasn't determined the exact figure because the money comes from multiple departments. There is no county fire department. Whatever was spent, only a fraction went directly to fire agencies, Thrush said. Most of it paid to upgrade a regional communication's system and helped fund two new helicopters.
Firefighters joined police, lawmakers and even actor Clint Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel, in campaigning for Proposition 172.
"It doesn't sound fair, does it? It doesn't feel fair to the fire service," said Carlsbad Fire Chief Kevin Crawford, who heads the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. "We helped make the case for increased funding. You can make a compelling argument that more of that money is due to the fire service." To Chuck Gaines, who oversees the Sheriff's Department budget, the extra tax is indispensable.
"If we lost a portion of it, we would go downhill fast," he said.
Gaines said that for years, the tax was used to pay for weapons, new deputies, correction officers and other staffers. It helped finance a $3.8 million aviation facility at Gillespie Field in El Cajon. But, Gaines said, costs rose and revenues dropped. So the public- safety tax pays for routine expenses now, he said. It puts gas in patrol cars, it pays utility bills and it covers salaries. It still pays for some extras.
The tax covered half the cost of the $2.3 million spent last year on a helicopter used to fight wildfires.
Gaines noted that Sheriff Bill Kolender's employees do more than patrol communities and investigate crimes. They run the jails, an aviation unit and a crime lab. Not all of the services are free, however.
A 30-year contract with San Diego police for jail space, for example, costs city taxpayers $5.2 million a year, police department spokesman Dave Cohen said. The Sheriff's Department also collects $65 million annually from nine communities and cities, including Imperial Beach, Santee and Vista, which contract with the sheriff for law-enforcement services. Nine cities that don't contract with the sheriff, including Chula Vista, La Mesa, San Diego and Oceanside, spent a combined $773 million on police and fire services last fiscal year.
La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid represents the San Diego Division of the League of California Cities, a group analyzing the distribution of the public safety tax. "We don't want to start any turf wars with our colleagues at the county. We just want our share of that money," said Madrid, who would like the county to cut its take by at least 6 percent. "It's about parity and equity."
At the very least, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders would like to see the tax used to fund a new countywide emergency communication system, mayoral spokesman Fred Sainz said. "The mayor believes the city of San Diego should get its fair share, but we want to work cooperatively with the county," Sainz said. "It's going to factor pretty high on our priority list."
Last spring, the department that oversees the city's legislative agenda and lobbying activities prepared a report on Proposition 172 for a City Council public safety committee. The report highlights the history of the tax, what it's used for and how it could be used. It also mentions two attempts to shift revenue in other counties. Two years ago, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors increased the county fire department's share of the half-cent tax, the report said. In November, Orange County voters were asked if they wanted a portion of the tax to help fund the Orange County Fire Authority. Voters rejected the proposal.
"Maybe in the future voters here will get a chance to say that for themselves," said Brent Eidson, assistant director of San Diego's Government Relations Department and the report's author. "We could lobby the Legislature, but they would prefer local agreement before sponsoring legislation."
Without legislative approval, a statewide vote is needed to shift more of the tax to cities. Such a switch would affect every county and city in the state, which is why 598,000 signatures need to be collected from registered California voters for the issue to become a ballot question. Locally, no one has committed to a voter initiative.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Jeff Bowman is taking a diplomatic approach with county officials, some of whom he met with recently to talk about the tax and additional funding for fire services. "They're willing to try and identify the scope of the fire problem in this county and figure out how to fix it, so that's the approach I'm taking," Bowman said. What bothers Bowman, though, is seeing city taxpayers pay for most of a tax that doesn't do much for them. "Residents of San Diego are paying to protect unincorporated areas," Bowman said. "In the meantime, in this city, fire and police services are lacking."
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob pointed out that cities asked for and received a larger share of the tax in the mid-1990s. Supervisors and the Legislature agreed to reduce the county's take, by less than 1 percent, to a level on par with most other California counties.
Since then, Jacob said, "The county has never been directly approached on the 172 issue, but the message from the county has always been very clear: it's a nonstarter. "It will create a major war between the county and the cities if they come after our Prop. 172 money," Jacob said.
Tracking the half-cent sales tax Proposition 172 authorized a half-cent sales tax for public safety to replace property tax money diverted for education. The public-safety tax revenue primarily comes from businesses in cities, but the lion's share goes to the county, the biggest loser in the property-tax shifts.
Text of Proposition 172: "This measure would provide a dedicated revenue source for public safety purposes. Revenue would be distributed to cities and counties for purposes such as police, sheriffs, fire, criminal prosecution and corrections. If this measure is approved by the voters, the tax would be collected in all counties. However, a county would be eligible to receive tax revenues beginning January 1, 1994, only if the board of supervisors votes to participate or voters within the county approve the measure by majority vote."