Restructuring Fire Protection in Tuolumne County
The safety and security of citizens is the first priority of government. Clearly, fire protection is a critical priority. At the January retreat, the Board of Supervisors unanimously decided creating Fire Safe Communities and Emergency Planning was our number one priority.
Since being elected, I have been researching the complex issues our fire districts face. I have read the recent Matrix study, reviewed revenues and expenditures, spoken with current and retired Fire Chiefs, County Fire and CAL FIRE personnel, retired Fire Fighters, County Staff, and you, the constituents. I am not an expert in the fire business, but am gaining an understanding.
There have been three studies since 2010 regarding how Fire and Emergency Services are provided. Two internal, and the external study by the Matrix Group. In nine years, virtually no action has taken place; we are suffering from analysis paralysis. There is no more time for studies, it is time to make tough decisions and take action.
The current model is not sustainable. Change is needed and we must act. I have found consensus that a County Wide, Unified Fire Model would be the most sustainable model. While the Matrix study may contain some flaws, it confirms a Unified County Fire System would probably provide the most firefighting capability for our limited dollars.
We also need to look at how to increase the dollars available for firefighting. Some would say the county should increase taxes, assess properties and levy parcel fees. I view this as a matter of priorities. We need to figure out how to be efficient as possible with our firefighting dollars, and we need to look at re-directing monies from less important government programs and services. It doesn’t make sense to spend money on non-life threatening services when services essential to protecting against massive loss of life go without. We must be wise stewards of the money we have. If and only if we have truly exhausted all the options would I even consider looking at placing a greater tax burden on our citizens.
We should start by having a campaign to cut red tape and recruit more volunteers to bring our present level of 62 volunteers back to the 200 mark where it was some years ago. We should take a hard look at the way engines respond to calls to minimize unnecessary duplication, costs and wear and tear. Our engines are getting older, but if well maintained perhaps they can be stretched so we don’t need $7.5M to replace them all at once. We should look at the personnel structure and make sure we are not top heavy and try to shift to more boots on the ground. We need to figure out why only $157K of $3.4M provided by the Prop 172 sales tax increase is going fire when it is our number one priority. Similarly, we need to look at PILT and SRS and other funding sources.
The county and the fire districts need to come together, lay down the titles, leave the badges and hats at the door, and have a serious conversation about the best way to move forward. Then we need to do it. If a Unified County Wide Fire Model is the way to go, then we need to make it happen. If we think we need to walk away from the contract with CAL FIRE, then we need to make a list of benefits and consequences and be willing to either continue to pay for those resources or provide them ourselves. We need to prioritize the county budget and find ways to shift funding to support fire needs.
If there is one thing I know about this community, it is that we all want what is best for our local fire departments. They are the pride and joy of many local communities. My grandfather was a volunteer firefighter and was instrumental in the Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District. But we can’t hold on to the past; we must look toward the future and make our communities safer now more than ever. It is not going to be easy, but we can’t kick the can down the road anymore. I was elected to represent District Three which is full of fire stations and districts and could be at the highest risk of a catastrophic fire. I am here to serve my district and this community at large. I look forward to finding and implementing a sustainable solution.