Calif. voters to decide fate of county's last volunteer fire dept.
Voters in the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District will have final say on whether or not the last volunteer fire agency in the county will remain independent
By J. Harry Jones
San Diego Union-Tribune
JULIAN, Calif. — Voters who live in the 81-square-mile Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District will have the final say on whether the last volunteer fire agency in the county will remain independent or be absorbed into the county’s Fire Authority.
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees special districts in the county, voted Monday to ask the Board of Supervisors to schedule a special mail-only election in the Julian area to be held as early as March 19 to determine once and for all the fate of the fire department.
The election was mandated after 26 percent of the voters in the area protested a September LAFCO decision to dissolve the department, which came after the district’s board of directors and the county jointly requested the action.
Assuming the supervisors call for the election at their next meeting on Dec. 11, ballots could be mailed to registered voters in late February or early March with a mandatory return date of March 19. The exact date of the election has not been set.
Supporters of the volunteers say the area is better served by locals who know and care about the community rather than professional firefighters who will rotate in and could be unfamiliar with the back roads of the historic gold mining town. They also say the volunteer department is part of the fabric of the community and a source of local pride since it was formed in the 1970s.
The county, however, maintains that better trained firefighters, working with additional county equipment and the backing of a much larger operation, will bring continuity to backcountry medical and fire protection. All the other volunteer departments in rural San Diego County have been absorbed into the county’s fire department, which was created a decade ago in the aftermath of the firestorms of last decade.
It is unclear how much support in the community the volunteers have. On Nov. 6, voters rejected a measure asking them to quadruple a property tax fire assessment from $50 per parcel to $200 annually to support a volunteer department. The measure lost by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin.
The volunteer department has been struggling financially for years, which prompted its directors to move for dissolution. But supporters say just because people voted not to increase their taxes doesn’t mean they want the county to assume control. Should the volunteers remain following the March election, the newly elected board of directors will have to find other ways to fund the department, as they have with limited success, for decades.
The county is running the department presently, but should voters opt for the volunteers, a number of benefits now enjoyed in the area will end, Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham said Monday.
All county-funded equipment and staffing would be removed from the area, including a paramedic engine, Mecham said. The county also would not automatically respond to emergencies because the volunteer department can’t reciprocate. Cal Fire would do mutual aid only after the volunteers are on scene of an incident and request help.
The Julian volunteers would be responsible for medical coverage including vehicle accidents in the much-visited tourist area, and for structure fires. Cal Fire, which has separate stations in the area, will continue to be responsible for wildland fires in the area no matter what the election results bring.
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