Guests: Gary Croucher, Interim San Miguel Fire Chief
Tom Porter, CAL FIRE Chief
Related Story: San Miguel Fire To Outsource Fire Protection
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The San Miguel fire agency, the largest fire protection district in San Diego County, is in serious financial trouble. The financial crunch is so bad that even after cuts, the district is reportedly facing million dollar deficits each year for the foreseeable future. In an effort to avoid insolvency, the district's board voted to enter into negotiations with cal fire to collaborate out services to the state fire agency. What that could mean for both employees of the San Miguel fire agency and the 150,000 people the agency serves remains a contentious issue in the east county. My guests, first interim San Miguel fire chief, Gary Croucher. Welcome to the program.
CROUCHER: Thank you for having us.
CAVANAUGH: Chief Croucher is taking the position of interim chief because chief Augie Ghio is in the hospital after being injured in a motorcycle accident. And Chief Porter, welcome to the show.
PORTER: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Please give us an update on how chief Augie Ghio is.
CROUCHER: He's having some tough time right now. He was in a serious motorcycle accident and transported to Palomar hospital. He still remains in ICU, and he's making some progress. We visited him first thing this morning. And it's going to take some time. He's got a couple uphill battles for him, but there's a lot of support for him, his family is with him, and I visited like I said this morning with him, and we definitely saw some positive progress with his recovery.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I know we here and our listeners wish him the best. Let me get some basics on the sudden Miguel fire district.
CROUCHER: Everything from the Spring Valley area, the Grossmont Mount Helix area, to the border of Jamul. It's about like you said, 150,000 residents. And it's about 47 square miles.
CAVANAUGH: And any how many firefighters are in your department?
CROUCHER: About 72 full-time firefighter, and we cover the district through eight fire stations.
CAVANAUGH: That's an important point. These are full-time, professional firefighters. These are not volunteers.
CROUCHER: That's correct. But unfortunately, due to the financial restraints of the district, one of the stations is currently staffed with two full-time firefighter, and then augmented with a reserve firefighter we have in the fleet, and we had to close one of our fire stations at station 15. That used to have a truck and an engine company there. It's it's now just staffed with a truck company.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the financial position San giMel finds itself in today.
PORTER: We're within a 1.2 and $1.4 million budget shortfall. And it's based about property taxes. Our income that we receive comes straight from property taxes. We don't get any of the taxes that come from the sales taxes or anything else. About 98% of our budget is property tax-based, and flat out, the home values have gone down, and with the values going down, the taxes on that are paid by each one of the residents goes down as well.
CAVANAUGH: And I know chief Ghio was quoted as saying he doesn't expect to see these property values go up to where they were any time soon.
PORTER: As much as we would all love to see the property values of your homes go back up, it's going to take some time. It's one of the worst either recessions or depressions for quite some time, and that affects everybody. You drive through the middle of our district right now, down campo road, and what used to be thriving businesses are now closed. And we're trying to look at the business sense of things as well and try to figure out how we're going to cope fiscally as well, not just the short term but the long-term.
CAVANAUGH: How have you tried to cut expenses?
CROUCHER: We've already closed one engine company, downstaffed our engine 23, the employees have given back both the 9% pers that was negotiated to get that. They've give up their holiday pay, they've given up any increase of cost to their medical insurance that goes up at this point. They pay 50% of the cost increase. And some of those different things. It's been some pretty significant givebacks by the employees.
CAVANAUGH: And the agency sent out a request for proposals to agencies to contract out fire services. I want to reintroduce cal fire chief Tom porter. Cal fire submitted a proposal. Why would cal fire the want to do this?
PORTER: Well, this is seen as a mutually beneficial cooperative agreement possibility for us. San Miguel is 50% of the district falls within state responsibility area, that's the wildland responsibility. Those areas east and south of the developed area of the district. So we cooperatively fight fire there already. The state is also obligated to at least look into whether or not a proposal like this is of benefit to both the district, citizens, and the state before going ahead. And we did that assessment and found that this district very much is in line with the state mission.
CAVANAUGH: Now, does cal fire operate any other fire districts one San Diego County?
PORTER: One San Diego, we have seven different contracts currently. The most notable are San Diego rural, which butts up to San Miguel. Also we serve Ramona, Valley Center, dear springs, and some other small districts.
CAVANAUGH: Now, chief croucher, I'm going to quote chief Ghio again, at least paraphrase what he said in the UT, he said this agency used to be the place to be for the top in firefighter compensation. Why did San Miguel ever pay as well as it did?
CROUCHER: Well, I think through the process, there's negotiations that go on, and within negotiations, I think the district -- and this goes back to the consolidation that we had in 1988 through the process that we thought we were living within the means, the board set policies back then, there was different benefits that were already in place at the time of the consolidation. That's where people talked about lifetime medical benefits, and some of those different things. In 1988, those were in place and being received by the employees there. They weren't negotiated away as property values were stable. And as property was one of the best investments that people forecasted that we'd continue to be in a good spot right now. The fact is that the property values took a turn that nobody expected, including us, and or director, and as time goes on, we started to make changes. But at the some point, we went out, tried to address the public as far as proposition A, which failed. The voters said they weren't willing to pay any additional fee, even to keep them at our current levels. We've got to a point where we've got decide what we're going to do to insure the long-term viability of the district.
CAVANAUGH: People are surprised to see cuts to the top salary. Chief Ghio makes more than $10,000 more than the San Diego fire chief. How is that ever justified?
CROUCHER: I don't know if I can personally justify that or not. I think if you look at it, the district when the last fire chief retired, we went out, the board set some deal, they wanted to attract the best possible person for the job. I think we found him in chief Ghio, and that's what they were willing to pay, and that's where we were able to attract some of the different people to apply for it.
CAVANAUGH: There's been a lot said about the benefits that have caused a lot attention in this ongoing story about San Miguel fire agency's money troubles. And I'm wondering about this lifetime health and dent at benefits paid to union and board members. You explain it as the kind of thing you thought property values were going to just keep going up and up even those other agencies don't have these kind of benefits.
>> Well some, some of the other agencies do have those benefits. And the border director already has taken some different action that will eliminate that not just for future employees but for the current board members as well
CAVANAUGH: So what alternatives does San Miguel have other than outsourcing?
CROUCHER: Phone if that's the only one. The employees groups have come forward with some different ideas. The key is are these short term solutions and next we're going to be in the same identical situation? We're trying to figure it out and going back to the employees and asking them to take not only in addition to the 10% they've offered up already but an additional 5%. But where does that stop and where do you find the long-term viability to stop it? And when it's come down and what we've looked at at this point in time, the cal fire agreement does bring that long-term viability.
CAVANAUGH: Chief porter, if this agreement is reached, if a deal is finally done, what does this really mean? Will services -- what services will cal fireprovide to San Miguel?
PORTER: We the provide all of the services that are currently being provided by the San Miguel district. We work for the board, we develop a level of service that the board requires of the department. So we effectively are just the workforce that would be inhabiting the fire stations and the -- responding on the apparatus just the way San Miguel is now. And by and large, that's the same employees. The same employees will come over to cal fire under our labor agreement and work at the same station just under a different patch.
CAVANAUGH: And will the employees make less than cal fire employees?
PORTER: The compization for a state firefighter is built on a 72-hour workweek schedule. So the employees roughly will be making the same amount of money. They will be working more hours because of the different workweek that we use. When you have a workweek that covers more days of the week, it requires less shifts, and it also requires less overtime to fill the shifts that are not fill period
CAVANAUGH: So they'll be making less per hour, and possibly less in overtime pay?
PORTER: And we do our compensation not on a per hour bases, but it's on a monthly.
CAVANAUGH: And what kind of authority will cal fire have in hiring and firing and salary negotiations? Would all of that authority pass to you?
PORTER: All of that authority would pass through cal fire. These would now be cal fire firefighters and they would work under the department of forestry and fire protection, and they would all be covered under our labor group.
CAVANAUGH: So what would the San Miguel fire district have unders it own control?
CROUCHER: You also have the board of directors that remains in place, the local control, the election process there, and they determine what the levels of service are. As time goes on, they look at the budget, they're able to be able to evaluate. One of the things we're hopeful in this process is not just to get back to the sustainability of the long-term viability of the district, but immediately what happens is we get that third person back on engine 23, we get that person that we can't afford right now. Then secondly as we move forward, if we're able to see some of these cost savings that we're predicting at this point and hope to achieve through negotiations, we hope that at some point, we can get that engine 15 back. And as we get engine 15 back, that affects the call volumes that we're running. We're increasing our call volume that goes up as well. We're up at this point to about nine thousand calls a year.
CAVANAUGH: I have heard that you have had some really rather emotional public hearings about this whole process. And I want to have either of you -- and have either of you attended these meetings?
CAVANAUGH: What are the residents' concerns?
PORTER: Residents' concerns, really to me, and this is from my perspective, is that they love their firefighters. They love their fire department. They love San Miguel as a fire department. And they see concerns with the state coming in, and look at the financial stress that the state is on, and they have concerns that the state is going to let the district down as well, as well as their firefighters.
CAVANAUGH: And what have you been saying to people about those concerns?
PORTER: The reality is that the district will remain the district. We will supply the firefighters to run the district development and respond to the district calls. They will be the same employees that are already there. And the state's position is that we will bring a stability to this.
CAVANAUGH: Are they concerned that if they're cal fire employees they're going to be pulled out of San Miguel to go somewhere else in the state during an emergency?
PORTER: There is that concern as well. And what it means to be a district is that you set your own drawdown levels. So the district already has a level at which they will allow equipment to leave the district for a mutual aid to San Diego City or out of county assignment. And that won't change. We, on my other hat, my wildland fire hat, I have 18 fire stations that I serve that greater state need with. And San Miguel would not be shouldering that any differently than they are today.
CAVANAUGH: When will these negotiations be over, do you know?
CROUCHER: Don't know. We're going to start our official negotiations here in two weeks, and as we have the appointments go forward, we're pretty confident that the proposal, which is already very close to what we expect, and I look forward to a cooperative working agreement between the two agencies.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.
PORTER: Thank you.