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San Diego Fire Dept. Faces Cuts in Budget

November 22, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Despite public calls for more firefighting resources in the wake of destructive wildfires, the city manager said Friday that a tight budget probably will force cutbacks in the Fire Department.

The gloomy outlook came amid criticism that San Diego didn't have enough firefighters and equipment to fight the Cedar fire, which burned 400 homes in the city and more than 2,200 across San Diego County.

City Manager Michael Uberuaga, in a memo to City Council members, warned of "deep reductions to public safety [that] could negatively impact the number of detectives on the police force, the air support and the availability of fire engines and truck companies."

Meanwhile, a county supervisor who in the days after the fires proposed a ballot measure that would create a parcel tax to pay for a fleet of firefighting helicopters has dropped the idea.

Supervisor Ron Roberts, a possible mayoral candidate, said he was convinced that the proposal was likely to be defeated on the March ballot, even though a lack of firefighting aircraft has been criticized in the wake of the Cedar and Paradise fires.

Roberts said he believed voters would not endorse a helicopter tax because rural residents already are going to pay a new parcel tax effective Jan. 1 to fund California Department of Forestry firefighting services. The state's parcel tax will not result in increased firefighting services.

Roberts also cited Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to ask voters in March to approve a $15-billion bond issue to pull the state out of debt.

"My gut feeling was telling me that this thing [the helicopter tax] wasn't going to fly right now," Roberts said Friday. "Rather than waste the effort, I decided to pull it back."

City leaders have been criticized for not spending more on fire services despite repeated warnings that San Diego was not prepared for a major wildfire.

But officials are confronting the reality of a sour statewide economy and a long history of tax antipathy in San Diego County.

Mayor Dick Murphy and eight other mayors have been invited to meet with Schwarzenegger on Tuesday to express their concern about his repeal of the car license fee increase. Revenue from the car tax helps pay for local services such as law enforcement and firefighting.

Schwarzenegger has vowed to make up the losses to local government because of the car tax repeal, but has not said how. Some Democrats said he would have a hard time finding the money to make local governments whole.

If the Legislature does not pass a "backfill" budget measure, San Diego stands to lose $50 million this year, Murphy told reporters Friday.

The mayor said he hopes to persuade the governor of the "dire consequences the city faces, including possible layoffs" of public safety employees.

The San Diego Fire Department has seen its budget cut by about 1% over the last three years, although the city's total budget was reduced by 15% during the same period because of cuts in state support for cities.

The result is that San Diego continues to have fewer firefighters than most major cities, a fleet of aging fire engines and too few fire stations to provide adequate coverage, city officials agree.

"This isn't a problem that arose over the last three years," said Councilman Jim Madaffer, who represents Tierrasanta, where 47 homes were destroyed by the Cedar fire. "This is a systemic problem over the past 40 years that came to a head in a thing called a firestorm."

The mayor's office and four City Council seats are up for election next year. One pollster, trolling for issues to help a client, said fire and police protection are more important now to voters than anytime in recent memory.

Also on the March ballot will be a proposal to boost the city's hotel-motel tax -- one of the lowest among large cities -- to provide money for police and fire protection, as well as the Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote the city as a tourist mecca. In voting that took place before the fires, Murphy opposed putting the measure on the ballot.

In his memo, Uberuaga said the city has had to delay replacing aging fire engines and leave fire station jobs unfilled.

"Over the past 10 years, due to funding constraints, apparatus replacement was inadequate to meet long-term requirements," he said.

Despite tight budgets, the city did lease a fire helicopter for four months during the summer. But the lease lapsed just days before the Cedar fire broke out Oct. 25.

The city has since renewed the lease at $230,000 a month, although the mayor has warned that the city cannot continue that payment indefinitely.

Madaffer, who had asked Uberuaga to prepare a memo about the Fire Department budgeting woes, said that to begin to correct the department's inadequacies, "the council will need to fundamentally refocus priorities."

"When we start talking about pet projects, somebody is going to have to say that fire engines are a pet project, helicopters are a pet project, firefighters are a pet project."

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