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County lags in fire funding compared to LA, OC report says

North County Times

Edward Sifuentes

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

San Diego County spends less per person on fire resources than its neighbors to the north in Orange and Los Angeles counties, according to a recent study by a local policy research organization.

And despite additional funding from the county in recent years, the disparity between the San Diego region and the two other counties is increasing, the report by the National University System Institute for Policy Research says.

County officials criticized the study, saying it compared "apples and oranges."

The county, the 18 cities in it and the various fire agencies responsible for protecting the region against catastrophic wildfires spent $153.75 per capita for those services in fiscal year 2008-09, the report said.
Agencies in Orange County spent $190 per person while Los Angeles County spent $219 per capita.

"It is troubling that not only do we spend less per capita, but that the gap has been growing widely," said Erik Bruvold, who co-authored the study with former San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman, a frequent critic of the county's lack of fire resources.

The total amount of money spent on fire services has increased in the region, from $406 million in 2005 to $487 million in 2009, according to the report. San Diego County has a population of about 3.1 million residents.
In fiscal year 2008-09, Orange County, which also has a population of 3.1 million, spent $598 million on fire services, according to the report.

Over the same period, Los Angeles County fire agencies spent $2.2 billion on fire services for a region with 10 million residents.

San Diego County fire agencies increased spending for firefighting $7.51 per capita between 2005 and 2009, while Orange County's spending increased by $36.23 and Los Angeles County's spending increased by $21.13, according to the report, which was partially funded by a grant from San Diego Gas & Electric Co., the region's power supplier.

"The results of the study will help SDG&E better understand what fire prevention challenges we face as a region, and how those gaps can be filled," Jennifer Ramp, the company's senior public relations manager, said Tuesday.

The study does not attempt to explain the reason for the disparity in funding, nor does it offer any recommendations on how to close the gap.
Bruvold said the utility company approached his organization about updating a similar study released last year. He said SDG&E paid roughly $15,000 of the estimated $35,000 cost of the study.

Local officials said the comparison was unfair because San Diego County does not have a county-run fire department, as the other two counties have. Because the county does not have its own fire department, it does not get a share of property tax money for fire services.

"It's apples and oranges," said Supervisor Bill Horn, whose district includes much of inland North County.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said that while the report offers good information, the data is somewhat misleading. She said the report includes money that the state pays Los Angeles County to provide fire service in state-owned land.

But it does not include state and federal money spent on fire protection in San Diego County, Jacob said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service are responsible for providing fire protection on large swaths of land in the county's back country.

The county has made efforts to improve fire services in the region, but without more money available, there is only so much the county can do, Horn said.

Jacob said the county's fire protection problems go back to the 1970s, when supervisors decided not to provide fire protection services.
In 1978, the Board of Supervisors decided to phase out its contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and left a hodgepodge of largely volunteer fire departments to protect the vast, unincorporated areas.

The county encouraged rural communities to form their own fire protection districts and tax themselves to pay for fire services. But the result was a mix of largely underfunded, volunteer agencies.

Two disastrous wildfires in the last six years ---- in 2003 and 2007 ---- lent urgency to the call for a regional fire agency.

The Board of Supervisors has come a long way since then, said Jacob, whose district includes much of the unincorporated area in the eastern part of the county where some of the wildfires have started.
Jacob also has taken the lead in efforts to improve fire services in the county, including proposing a study due to be completed in April that would look at the county's fire protection needs.

"This board, to its credit, has stepped up to the plate," Jacob said.
In a ballot initiative last year, the supervisors proposed a parcel tax to increase funding for fire protection that would have raised an estimated $50 million the first year. The measure failed to earn the two-thirds vote necessary to approve the measure.

"The voters just said, 'no,'" Horn said.

Horn noted the county now spends $15 million a year to help fund several volunteer rural fire agencies. After the ballot measure failed, the county formed a fire authority to increase coordination among rural fire departments, Horn said.

Augie Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, said the National University report and other reports that have been released in recent years create awareness about the need for better funding for fire services in the region.

He noted there have been significant improvements since the wildfires in 2003.

"I think we are taking those incremental steps, but we can't just flick a switch and close that gap," Ghio said.