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San Diego Fire Dept. Chief Resigns

Jeff Bowman had expressed frustration with the city's lack of financial support.

April 05, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Fire Chief Jeff Bowman announced his resignation Tuesday, frustrated by the city's refusal to substantially boost the Fire Department's funding after the 2003 fire that destroyed more than 300 homes in the city.

Mayor Jerry Sanders asked Bowman, who has not lined up another job, to reconsider on Monday, but he declined. His resignation, which caught city officials by surprise, is effective June 30.

"This hurts," said City Council President Scott Peters. "I know he's been frustrated at his inability to get the funding needed for his vision of fire protection. I understand his frustration."

Bowman, 54, was at a fire chief convention Tuesday in Baltimore. A Fire Department spokesman said Bowman would hold a news conference Thursday.

The fire chief has expressed his frustration to the City Council on numerous occasions during budget hearings. In his resignation letter, he wrote that it is time "to move on to other ventures."

San Diego, one of the nation's most fiscally conservative big cities, has historically had fewer firefighters, fewer fire stations and older equipment and communication gear than other big-city departments -- a situation that the city's fire chiefs have decried for more than two decades.

Soon after being hired in 2002 from the fire chief's job in Anaheim, Bowman expressed surprise at the department's low level of resources.

Investigations done after the 2003 Cedar fire cited those problems as contributing factors in the difficulties the firefighters had controlling the blaze, which started in rural brush land outside the city limits and roared southward into the upscale Tierrasanta and Scripps Ranch neighborhoods.

The most destructive brush fire in state history, it burned 300,000 acres countywide and destroyed more than 2,400 homes, including those in Tierrasanta and Scripps Ranch. Fifteen people were killed, although none in the city.

Despite the fire, a San Diego tax measure to boost fire protection failed in 2004. The measure would have increased the hotel-motel room tax to provide funds for fire and police protection, and for tourism promotions.

City officials, afraid of further rejection by voters, have not offered another such measure.

San Diego has a third fewer firefighters per 1,000 residents than the median city of more than 1 million residents. The Commission on Fire Accreditation International recently declined to give the San Diego department full accreditation, noting that many of its stations fail to meet the five-minute standard for arriving at major fires or calls for paramedic service.

To compensate for the low number of firefighters, the city has filled shifts by offering unlimited overtime. The strategy boosts the salaries of individual firefighters but leaves the city short of manpower during major fires.

That seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Sanders, the mayor since November, is wrestling with a $2-billion pension deficit. A former police chief, Sanders took office after a special election following the resignation of Mayor Dick Murphy, a fellow Republican, who was criticized for his handling of the deficit.

Sanders has decided to attack the city's fiscal problem not by seeking to raise revenue, but by trimming payroll, even if it means firing hundreds of non-safety employees and risking a legal showdown with employee unions.

Bowman's resignation comes just weeks before Sanders is set to unveil his first annual budget, sure to be a bare-bones approach to city services.

Sanders' key political supporters -- the Republican Party, Chamber of Commerce and editorial page of the San Diego Union-Tribune -- have targeted what they see as undue influence by public employee labor unions as the city's biggest problem, not, as others suggest, an unreasonably low tax rate.

In his resignation letter, Bowman suggested that, although the Fire Department desperately needs more money, it would probably have to wait for years until the city solves its pension deficit.

"As such I believe it is in the best interests of my family to move on to other ventures," Bowman said in his letter.

Councilman Jim Madaffer, whose district includes areas hardest hit by the 2003 fire, said Bowman was "never afraid to speak the truth."

Peters said that council members were impressed by Bowman's straightforward manner and his allocation of resources, particularly in preparing for a possible repeat of the 2003 fire. The department has bought new fire engines and started a helicopter program, but it has not added manpower or built new stations to keep pace with residential growth.

Overall, however, the Fire Department's resource level has not changed, he said. "I don't think fire [protection] has changed since 2001," when he was first elected, Peters said.

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