San Miguel Fire targets July 12 as official stand alone restart

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The San Miguel Fire Protection District has been busy of late, taking a number of steps towards the date when it will become a stand-alone agency, and terminate all connections to Cal Fire, which currently provides its fire protection services.

The San Miguel Fire Protection District has been busy of late, taking a number of steps towards the date when it will become a stand-alone agency, and terminate all connections to Cal Fire, which currently provides its fire protection services.

At its most recent meeting on April 12, the district’s board approved a seven-year contract for dispatching services with a regional provider; amended its current fiscal year budget by about $1 million, mostly for added costs connected to the transition; and adopted a new logo to reflect the changes it’s making.

San Miguel’s new fire chief and board chairman both say the transition that is set to officially happen July 12 is on track and moving smoothly.

“We’re at least on schedule for our transition and somewhat ahead,” said Chief Criss Brainard, who was hired last month.

Board Chairman Theresa McKenna said she was feeling extremely confident about the return to an independent agency that was set in motion last July when the board voted to sever its contract with Cal Fire about two years early.

“It’s not that we can afford to go back to Cal Fire,” she said. “We simply can’t afford to stay with Cal Fire because of their increased costs for salaries, benefits and administrative fees.”

In 2012, the sprawling, 47-square mile district, faced with dwindling revenue from property taxes, decided to contract for fire protection from Cal Fire. Yet the costs for those services, particularly for personnel, increased to the point where shifting back to a stand-alone agency makes more fiscal sense, McKenna and the board’s majority members now say.

According to the district’s revised 2016-17 budget approved last week, the cost for Cal Fire’s services is $13.2 million through the end of June. For the next fiscal year, the district’s finance officer tabbed the cost for providing those same level of services in-house at $11.8 million, meaning the district would save $1.46 million annually.

Yet not all directors agree on the numbers. Director William Kiel said from the figures he saw in the budget report, the district is facing a $1 million loss. McKenna called on former chief, Darrin Howell, to give his estimate on what the increased costs would be. Howell said it would be higher, but “probably $1 million is not the number you’re going to hit.”

According to the finance officer’s report, the costs incurred to return to a stand-alone district are about $641,000. But on another part of the report, “total additional budget costs” were stated as $1,089,528.’’

The amended total general fund budget for the year ending June 30, 2017 was $21.3 million, up by about $1 million or 5.2 percent. The biggest increase was for professional services, which went up by $667,000.

Within that category, the district saw increased costs caused by the hiring of a transition consultant for $114,000, and for added legal costs of $55,000, among other things.

The district is also moving to a new dispatch arrangement, entering into a seven-year contract with the Heartland Communications Facility Authority, a joint powers agency that serves most of East County, and will cost San Miguel $723,000, according to the budget report.

San Miguel will see some reduced spending after its board voted last month not to build a new station in the Bostonia area for a total cost of about $1.4 million. That decision came after the Lakeside Fire Protection District opened a new station within a mile of the planned station. However, the district has already sunk some $630,000 into the planned station at Pepper Drive, including $400,000 on the property acquisition.

Because of that reversal, the district is losing $24,000 a month in revenue from lost emergency calls, Kiel said. “We’re flushing money down the toilet by not moving forward,” he said.

Brainard said he has been meeting with the Lakeside district and should have a solution to the situation at the next regular meeting on April 26.

Brainard told the board that one of the district’s ambulance providers, AMR, would be reducing the number of paramedics on vehicles from two to one. The vans would carry an emergency medical technician.

He said the change wouldn’t affect the quality of services to patients. “The impact to patients, in my opinion, is zero.”

As part of the change over to local personnel, the district is sending 39 employees to a training academy starting in June. According to a district finance report, the cost for this training was estimated to be $188,613.

In all, San Miguel has 83 employees, of which 77 are devoted to fire fighting functions, Brainard said.

Given all the changes the district is going through, Brainard unveiled a proposal to re-brand the agency to include the word “Rescue” in San Miguel’s name. He said the added name and logo change would be seen on the district’s trucks, its badges, letterheads, and cards, and more accurately reflects what the department does. “EMS calls now make up more than 75 percent of our business,” he said.

The district’s legal name would remain San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District. Brainard didn’t provide an estimate on the cost to make the changes but noted the new graphic was given nearly unanimous approval from the work force.

The board approved the name change on a 6-0 vote, one of the few results of unanimity that evening, with Director Dave Rickards absent.

In other news, a recall effort to remove three San Miguel directors failed to get official approval from the county to collect signatures. The county Registrar of Voters determined the petitions didn’t conform to the required format. In January, recall papers were served to McKenna and two other directors, Jim Ek and Mike Vacio.

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