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.  

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