Calif. voters oust final San Diego volunteer fire dept.
The Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District will be disbanded and citizens will be served by the regional Fire Authority instead
J. Harry Jones
The San Diego Union-Tribune
It appears the last volunteer fire department in San Diego County will cease to exist.
Voters who have been served by the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District for the last 35 years have opted to abandon the independent agency staffed by local residents and to join the regional Fire Authority instead.
Although official results of a special month-long election won’t be known for another week or two, with perhaps 100 mail ballots still to be counted, voters in Julian supported the county takeover by a 55.56 percent margin — 719 yes votes to 575 no votes.
It was hoped that the vote, which ended Tuesday, would silence an acrimonious debate that has been raging for years in the rural community, a debate that has weighed heavy on the hearts of the residents of the popular tourist destination that sits in the northeastern part of the county.
“Although we don’t have final election numbers yet, it is my hope that the community will now come together regardless of the outcome and heal after what was a long and often divisive debate over this issue,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a champion of the Fire Authority since its inception a decade ago.
“We all want a safer and better protected Julian, and I believe we should work side-by-side to reach that goal.”
But a truce seems unlikely. Several volunteers and their supporters spoken with Wednesday sounded very upset and far from conciliatory.
They suggested lawsuits are coming and accused the county of all sorts of wrongdoing, including voter fraud, though they had no evidence to support the allegations.
Following the firestorms of 2003 and 2007, which began in the backcountry and blew into more urban areas destroying thousands of homes and killing many, the county decided to form a fire department which would replace volunteer departments with professional firefighters and equipment. The Fire Authority contracts with Cal Fire, which now man’s stations throughout the unincorporated region.
Only the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District had held out, despite annually facing financial problems. The volunteers and their many supporters said they didn’t trust the county to provide services as well as the volunteers have done. They said volunteers who live in, know, and care about the community are better suited to serve the area than professional firefighters who don’t know the people and myriad back roads.
Several years ago, the county offered the independent district a deal in which they would provide equipment and other services to the volunteers on the condition that its board of directors would seriously consider dissolution and joining the authority in the future.
After much back and forth, a split board last year voted to ask the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) — an organization that oversees special districts such as fire and water departments — for dissolution, a request joined by the county.
In September, LAFCO’s members voted unanimously to make the move, but under rules never before used in San Diego, a protest was initiated and when 26 percent of the registered voters said they were opposed to the takeover, a special election was called.
A month ago, ballots went out to all 2,496 registered voters in the 81-square-mile district.
The initial results, posted Tuesday night, mirrored a vote taken in November in which voters in the fire district were asked to raise a fire assessment property tax from $50 to $200 to support the volunteer department. That measure failed by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin, a result supporters of the volunteers optimistically said was the outcome of people not wanting to raise taxes on themselves and not a sign of support for the county’s position.
Tuesday’s results suggest that wasn’t the case.
So what happens now?
Fire Authority and local Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham said once the Registrar of Voters certifies the election results, and after the LAFCO board accepts the results at a meeting it will hold on April 8, the dissolution and takeover can happen right away.
But he said he would rather have the transition take some time.
“While I feel this is the right thing for the community, I also recognize that it has been a divisive issue,” Mecham said. “My number one goal is that we can move forward together doing what is right for that community and move toward a peaceful transition of services.”
He said if the volunteers sit down with the county to reasonably discuss the transition, the change might not take place until July 1.
“But if they decide for some reason they don’t want to cooperate with the county or want to fight with us, then we would almost immediately dissolve the district,” he said. “That’s kind of the nuclear option which I don’t want to go to. I’m hoping that after a week or so this will have set in and they’ll understand this is the way to go.”
Under the terms of the dissolution, the county will assume control of the volunteers new fire station off state Route 79, as well as the $1.2 million mortgage still owed on the building. Cal Fire firefighters and equipment will staff the station 24/7 and respond not just to wildfires, as they have been doing in the area for decades out of their own stations, but also to all other calls of structure fires, medical aids and traffic accidents.
Mecham said any volunteers who would still like to work with the department are welcome, but they would have to meet stringent training and physical fitness requirements.
Mike VanBibber, chief of the volunteer department, said Wednesday he’s unsure where things are headed.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “The county is not being forthcoming and neither is LAFCO so we’re just taking it one day at a time until they tell me I have to leave the station. We’re still doing our jobs.”
Told about Mecham’s comments about the two options for the timing of the dissolution, Van Bibber said it was the first he had heard such details.
“I welcome any type of discussion,” he said. “We’ve always been open to talk and negotiation … but that’s been the issue all the time. There have been no negotiations. It’s our way or the highway is what we’ve been told. Obviously, we’re kind of heading down the highway at this moment. But we’ll see. There are other things in the works that could change things and turn it all around.”
VanBibber also said he still holds out a slim ray of hope that the election results will swing the other way as more late ballots are counted.
He said he knows of several dozen people who didn’t send in their ballots until the last day and they may not have arrived yet at the Registrar’s office to be counted.
“I’m hopeful,” he said.
“They can take away my station. They can take away my title. They can take away our responsibility to our community. But they can’t take away my hope.”
©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune