For the second time in four days, an ad-hoc committee exploring Cambria’s fire protection options heard from residents about their preferences and concerns moving forward.
And for the second time, those who spoke from the audience Thursday, Sept. 3, at the Veterans Memorial Building were overwhelmingly in favor of retaining local control rather than entering into a long-term contract with Cal Fire.
The Cambria Community Services District ad-hoc committee, consisting of board Vice President Muril Clift and Director Michael Thompson, listened to input and fielded questions from an audience of more than 50 people — about half of whom wore red T-shirts bearing the message “Keep Cambria Fire Local.”
Of the 16 people who spoke — some more than once — all but one urged the committee to retain the Cambria Fire Department for fire protection as opposed to signing a more permanent contract with Cal Fire. (The other speaker confined her comments to urging audience members to read up thoroughly on the issue.)
With Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller’s retirement this summer, the CCSD board entered into a one-year, interim agreement with Cal Fire to provide the community with fire protection.
Several of those who spoke had also attended the committee’s first workshop, held Monday at the same location.
One of them, Mark Bonnard, received applause when he asked, “I don’t understand why we’re spending so much time on a problem we already have fixed.”
It was a sentiment echoed by others in the audience, who questioned why the directors were considering a switch to Cal Fire.
“We’re starting with the grand jury report,” Thompson said in answer to a question by Cambria Healthcare District trustee Mary Ann Meyer.
Thompson was referring to a report that suggested there was an opportunity for improved emergency services if the CCSD were to explore contracting Cambria Fire Department responsibilities with Cal Fire. It further recommended that the CCSD request a presentation from Cal Fire and obtain community input about the possibility of contracting with the state agency.
Cal Fire officials, however, have said such a presentation wouldn’t include a delineation of costs. Such a breakdown, Chief Rob Lewin has said, would only come once the CCSD has committed to hiring the agency. This was a sticking point with several audience members.
“Would any of the board members or anyone else purchase a house, vehicle, insurance, anything without having full disclosure of the cost before they signed a contract for the purchase?” Jerry Wood asked. “I think not. Especially when it involves public funding.”
Both Clift and Thompson expressed reservations about signing a contract before receiving an indication of what services would be provided and the costs involved.
“Both Mike and I agree that that would be problematic,” Clift said. “It would be a problematic situation if we couldn’t get a real analysis of what everyone is providing.”
More than one member of the audience suggested putting the matter to a direct vote of residents, each receiving an enthusiastic round of applause, but the directors weren’t ready to commit to such a course.
Instead, they suggested the possibility of a survey to be included in water bills, and Clift reminding the audience that board members had been elected to make decisions on behalf of their constituents.
“There might be a vote, but that’s a decision the board is going to have to make,” he said.
As they had Monday, former fire chiefs Bob Putney and Bill Knoop spoke forcefully against contracting with Cal Fire.
Knoop responded when Clift asked the audience what they meant by keeping Cambria Fire local, pointing out that the CCSD couldn’t require firefighters to live within the community they serve.
“What is considered local is local control,” Knoop said. “Once you sign a contract with Cal Fire, you no longer have any control over the employees, period. No ifs, ands or buts. You no longer have any control over the equipment. … Local control is important because we have a way to talk to a local fire department, a way to deal with them.”
Putney added that it would be difficult to reverse course down the road if, after contracting with Cal Fire, the community had second thoughts.
“This is a labor contract,” he said. “The minute they stroke the pen with Cal Fire, all the employees will be their employees, and you may never see them again.”
Cal Fire Chief Rob Lewin, however, said earlier in the day that it’s not a complicated matter to shift employees back to local supervision if a district decides to reactivate its own department after a period of time under Cal Fire. He added that the equipment remains the property of the local district.
In addressing the fire protection workshop, Putney added that Cambria Fire and Cal Fire have different missions and different strengths.
“How do you think the Los Angeles police would feel if the city of Los Angeles got a contract with the California Highway Patrol?” he asked. “Both are law enforcement agencies, (but) both have vastly different missions.”
He described Cal Fire as “a great wildland department. I love Cal Fire.” He added, however, that “when I came down here, I was a little disappointed that their ability to fight structure fires is not as well ingrained.”
Other audience members repeated concerns, voiced at the first meeting, about a lack of familiarity with Cambria’s streets potentially hindering the efforts of firefighters responding to calls for help.
At one point in the meeting, Clift sought to reassure audience members that the district’s investment in fire protection hadn’t dropped. He said that, while the percentage of tax dollars earmarked for fire protection had dropped from 80 percent in 2009 to 65 percent in 2015, the effective investment hadn’t changed.
Clift said that the state, in that earlier period, had shown a tendency to dip into local coffers. But he said, fire funds were off-limits to the state, so CCSD overbudgeted the fire department to keep the state’s hands off district money.
“In effect, it became a slush fund for the general manager,” he said. “The
extra money (in the fire protection budget) was used for other things so the state wouldn’t reach in and take that money.”
In answer to audience questions about how long the committee’s fact-finding process would take, Thompson reiterated what he had said Monday: that there would be five or six meetings with the public to seek feedback.
Clift added that they planned to make a “group and individual contacts with every employee of the CCSD Fire Department within the next two weeks.”
Feedback from and comparisons with other communities are also planned, he said, mentioning Los Osos, Marysville and Canyon Country among them, starting within the next month or so.
The entire process, he and Thompson estimated, would take about six months.