After receiving an earnest request to put the recent fire department budget cuts on the agenda of the next Ramona Municipal Water District board meeting, General Manager Ralph McIntosh said a presentation will be made regarding all district cuts at the board’s Oct. 13 meeting.
McIntosh said RMWD Chief Financial Officer David Barnum will go over the budget and how it was presented to the board. A couple of fire chiefs are expected be on hand to answer questions.
“It will be an open discussion,” said McIntosh.
The request to have recent cuts on the agenda came from Ramona resident Jeff Miller at the board’s Sept. 22 meeting. Miller, a career firefighter, also addressed the board at the Sept. 8 meeting with his concerns about the budget changes.
The water district cut about $450,000 from the fire department’s budget of approximately $5 million by eliminating the reserve firefighter program and the staffing for the rescue rig.
“I was disappointed this was not on the agenda for this time given the magnitude of the event and the amount of the cuts that were made,” Miller said at the Sept. 22 meeting.
Miller explained he was disappointed because “I can’t have an interaction with you to ask questions.”
Instead, Miller presented information he collected, including his review of the water district’s budget and the district’s mission statement for the fire department.
Miller read from the mission statement: “The very basic mission for the district’s fire department is to protect and preserve life and property, in that order. This requires a well-trained, efficient organization that provides for the basic levels of fire protection.”
Miller then read the list of fire protection services.
The means to achieve these ends, he said, were in order of priority, with the first one being “Emergency Response—Personnel. Respond to emergency responses quickly, safely and prepared.”
“Cutting personnel does not meet your own mission statement that you guys have in your own handbook,” Miller told the board. “You failed this mission.”
Miller said that, when RMWD contracted with Cal Fire in 1993, the staffing was the same as before the cuts, and yet the population of Ramona has increased, along with property tax revenue.
“Why was that never addressed? Why was that never increased?” he asked.
Posing a number of other questions regarding the fire department’s funding and its services, Miller said to the board, “Please put this on the agenda in two weeks so you can answer my questions. I’d appreciate that as well as I’m sure everyone else in this room.”
According to the state’s open meeting law, the board could not respond to Miller because the subject was not on the meeting agenda. Miller spoke during the part of the meeting dedicated to members of the public wishing to address the board on any subject within its jurisdiction but not on the agenda.
The district has been facing a severe budget shortfall due to a decline in water sales and property tax revenues, and the suspension of Proposition 1A, which will allow the state to take $450,000 to $500,000 from the district, McIntosh said.
“These are tough times,” said McIntosh. “I hope people can wake up and see what’s happening.”
Pointing out what the water district has done for the fire department, McIntosh said a new fire building basically was built for Station 82 and is due to open Oct. 1. A new fire engine was delivered recently “at a cost of nearly $500,000,” McIntosh said. RMWD directors on the board last year ordered the new fire engine to replace an older engine for which repairs were too cost-prohibitive.
The district’s cuts go beyond the fire department, McIntosh said, with the layoffs of five employees ranging from clerical to technical staff within the water district. Although the receptionist for the fire department was laid off, McIntosh noted that person was an employee of the water district, not CalFire, and the cut would represent a savings to the RMWD budget.
He also said the district has had to put capital improvements and capital replacement projects on hold.
“It’s just a frustrating time right now,” he said, adding that the district made changes it needed to take to move forward.