Fire department cuts draw concerns
A combination of several economic factors has forced the Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) to seek ways to cut the budgets in every department, including the fire department, much to the concern of some firefighters and residents.
RMWD General Manager Ralph McIntosh said the water district is facing some severe financial hardships due to declining water sales revenue, declining property tax revenue and the loss of funds due to the suspension of Proposition 1A. Passed in 2004, proposition 1A protects local government funding for local services; however, it allows such provisions to be suspended if the governor declares a fiscal necessity and two-thirds of the legislature approves the suspension. The suspension was passed by both the California Assembly and Senate in late July.
That means that the state will take $450,000 to $500,000 of property tax revenues from the Ramona Municipal Water District, according to RMWD Chief Financial Officer David Barnum.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s at a time of declining water sales,” he said.
John Winder, Division Chief of CalFire’s Central Division, said RMWD originally asked the fire agency to cut 20 percent from its budget which “wasn’t achievable.” With a budget of $5 million, a 20 percent cut would amount to $1 million, which could mean closing a fire station, he said.
According to Winder, none of the options were great but they needed to find some place to make cuts. Winder said CalFire recommended eliminating staffing on the rescue rig, and called this cut the “best of the bad.” Doing this would save $350,000 per year. They also recommended cutting Ramona’s reserve firefighter program, which would save $100,000 per year.
McIntosh explained that the district will now pay for 10 full-time fire personnel per day instead of 11 per day. With the elimination of the Ramona reserve program, which supplemented that staffing, that equates to losing two people per day.
No one has physically been moved from the district, Winder said, because the department was “already down three people.” In that case, timing was good, he said. And, Winder pointed out, if the economy or funding improves, they will reinstate the positions.
Ramona Battalion Chief Greg Griswold said he was part of the process to come up with a budget reduction option but wasn’t involved in the final decision. Leaving the rescue rig unstaffed was not his first option.
“I feel for the general manager who’s making really difficult decisions,” Griswold said. “This is not something they took lightly. They are under a huge amount of stress during these economic times. I believe it’s temporary until the economy improves.”
The rescue rig is owned by the county, but was offered to the Ramona fire department if it agreed to cover some sections outside the department’s response area. Griswold said the department has taken the rescue rig to areas around Deer Springs, Valley Center and Rincon.
According to one firefighter, the rescue rig has several items for special emergency situations. The rig has a compressor that has the ability to refill air bottles. It also has ropes and harnesses, circular saws, shoring equipment, air monitoring equipment, light towers, and a basket that would be used for such a situation as lifting a person out of a ravine.
Winder said all engines have rescue equipment, just not as much as the rescue rig. In 95 percent of the cases, the engines have the right equipment, he said. When they get into a heavy rescue situation, they will use the rig, explained Winder.
As a solution to help offset the cuts, Griswold said the county fire authority has agreed to provide one county volunteer per day with a $100 stipend to work on the rescue rig, once that person is trained.
The issue of trained people staffing the rig was brought up at the RMWD meeting Tuesday, Sept. 8. Two career firefighters, speaking as Ramona residents, addressed the board with their concerns.
Jeff Miller said he was selected from his home street to talk before the board because residents are worried about how the cuts will affect the safety of the community. He said the fire department is understaffed and cited an incident that morning when a man in the San Diego Country Estates was in full cardiac arrest and an ambulance and fire engine from Station 81 responded, each staffed with two personnel.
Because the two paramedics and a firefighter needed to be in back of the ambulance as the patient was transported to the hospital, the other firefighter had to drive the ambulance, leaving behind the engine unmanned.
Fire personnel from Station 80 then had to retrieve the engine, leaving that station with only paramedics manning it for a period of time, said Miller. He added that three-fourths of the town was unstaffed or uncovered for emergency services during that time.
“You guys need to find money to keep that staffing at least at the minimum,” he told the board. “I implore you to please reconsider the cuts that you made, try to find the money somewhere else or make cuts somewhere else because it could be your house, could be my house.”
Miller said fortunately there was enough staff to respond that morning and assist the man in cardiac arrest.
Donald Davis also spoke before the board, telling members that constant training is needed if there is a different stipend person each day on the rescue rig. Davis added that someone 18 years of age with a week of driver’s training on the rescue rig is not enough training.
According to Davis, the CalFire staff goes through an 11-week academy with three weeks training in operating fire engines in extreme and different situations. Because such training is needed, Winder said the assistance from the county will not be immediate.
Steve Foster, a Ramona resident and a firefighter in another district, is also worried about the cuts. He said the water rates have been increasing and he doesn’t believe the declining sales should be a factor. The suspension of Proposition 1A, he said, is affecting agencies everywhere.
“That I can understand,” he said. “If that was the sole reason they were cutting, I could understand.”
According to Barnum, residents in Ramona pay $188.52 per parcel or EDU (equivalent dwelling unit) for fire, which amounts to approximately $2.6 million. The $600,000 to $700,000 received in ambulance transport revenues partially reimburses the ambulance costs, he said.
About $2.1 million in property tax revenue makes up the difference. The 2009-10 Cal Fire budget is $5.4 million, Barnum said.
“Every penny of that $188.52 is going to fire protection in Ramona,” Barnum said. “It hasn’t changed in years,” he added, noting that CalFire’s budget has increased $1 million in the past five years.
Barnum said he doesn’t think residents necessarily understand CalFire’s proposal. No fire stations will be closed and no front line engines will be taken out.
“I don’t think there will be an impact to the citizens of Ramona,” he said.
McIntosh also pointed out that they didn’t want to close a station or raise rates. He said this was CalFire’s proposal; the chiefs are backing it and have some solutions.
Griswold said that as battalion chief, he likes people to know what is happening and understand what it means.
“Any time you lose career people, that is a huge impact,” he said. But, Griswold added, “We’re going to do what we can for the level of service for the community.”
He suggested that those in the Ramona reserve program apply to the county’s program.
RMWD board members gave their approval to move forward with the cuts at the last closed session meeting, McIntosh said. Although other budget cuts currently are confidential, McIntosh noted, “Cuts we’re making will be across the board.”
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