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Wednesday, April 05, 2006 | Citing the ominous financial problems facing the city, San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman resigned suddenly Tuesday.
The chief’s exit comes amid the city of San Diego’s unprecedented fiscal troubles and less than two weeks before Mayor Jerry Sanders is slated to release an austere fiscal year 2007 budget. Bowman’s last day will be June 30, the final day of fiscal year 2006.
“Given the magnitude of issues our new mayor is facing, and trying to resolve, it is apparent that the city’s current financial challenges may take years to resolve,” Bowman said in statement released Tuesday. “As such, I believe it is in the best interests of my family to move onto other ventures.”
Bowman, who won high marks in the wake of the catastrophic 2003 wildfires, saw many of his efforts to improve fire protection thwarted by the city’s tight budget and growing fiscal problems.
The chief, who came to San Diego in 2002, did not secure another job before announcing his resignation. The Mayor’s Office will carry out a nationwide search for his replacement, city spokesman Fred Sainz said.
Bowman was at a firefighter conference in Baltimore and could not be reached for comment, Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque said. Mayor Jerry Sanders was ill and also not available for comment, Sainz said.
Just four years into his tenure, Bowman is best known for leading the city’s firefighting efforts during the 2003 firestorm, which ripped through 2,400 homes and killed 16 people.
“My most vivid memory of Chief Jeff Bowman is of his calm and professional approach to handling issues surrounding the Cedar Fire both during and long after the firestorm,” Councilman Jim Madaffer stated in a press release.
Before and after the historic blazes, Bowman criticized the city budget’s crafters for not recognizing the urgency of many of his needs.
Sanders and Bowman will address the media Thursday afternoon.
Others at City Hall said Bowman, a nationally recognized fire official, had a reputation for relentlessly pushing to better fund fire protection. Thin budgets, voters’ distaste toward new taxes and a slashed credit rating have largely prevented new funding for fire stations, communications equipment and firefighters.
Financial reporting errors have caused auditors to withhold their certification of the city’s financial statements for the past three years. The municipal government’s credit rating has been suspended, preventing the city from borrowing on the public bond markets to build the 20 additional fire stations the department says it needs.
Those extra stations are needed in order to improve lagging response times. Currently, about half of the city’s homes are outside of a 5-minute response window – a National Fire Protection Agency benchmark.
A thin city budget has prevented the fire department from adding the 400 additional firefighters it says it needs. The hundreds of millions of dollars needed to replace the department’s aging communication equipment are also unavailable, city officials said.
“The mayor shares his frustrations. These are problems we inherited, not that we created,” Sainz said. Sanders took office in December.
“We wish they could be resolved fairly quickly, but we can’t just strike up the printing press and print dollars,” Sainz added.
Sainz said that the mayor’s budget proposal, which will be released in two weeks, will address the annually occurring under-budgeting of police and fire overtime. For San Diego Fire-Rescue last fiscal year, the city budgeted $6.6 million for overtime but ended up spending nearly $15 million.
Civic leaders and public officials, including Bowman, tried to muster up additional funds for better fire protection twice after the destructive firestorms of 2003.
Even in the wake of those fires, voters twice turned down a hotel-room tax increase, which was sold as a chance to boost the city’s public safety coffers without hurting local residents. The hotel-room tax is overwhelmingly paid by out-of-town visitors to the city.
“I know that frustrated him,” said Council President Scott Peters.
Others commended Bowman, who was named 2004 Fire Chief of the Year by the International Association of Fire Chiefs metropolitan section, for winning more funds for the department.
The city allocated $160 million for the department this year, $27 million more than what it spent on the department when the firestorms took place. In addition, the city now has its own rescue helicopter and will be adding 50 new fire engines by 2012.
“Given those limited resources, he never dissuaded his efforts,” said Ron Saathoff, president of City Firefighters Local 145, which represents nearly 1,000 San Diego Firefighters. “Only so much that can be done in this environment and he did as much as could be done.”
Bowman arrived in San Diego after serving as chief in Anaheim.
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