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On the radio Friday, I was again ranting about public officials sending money to the opera.

This report, a very good one actually, documents the challenges standing in the way of merging the region’s disparate fire departments into some kind of cohesive unit presumably run by the county government.

One of the major goals of the venture would be to make sure that it’s somebody’s explicit job to provide fire protection to more than 950,000 acres of backcountry land that isn’t currently within any of these agencies’ jurisdiction.

The report lists many tough hurdles that would have to be jumped to make the plan a reality.

But chief among them is, of course, money.

The county government could legally provide the major funding for the effort, the report says. But alas, it finds, there’s just no money.

County supervisors and others have lined up behind legislation that, if passed, would force the state to take money away from what it sends to local schools and put it toward this effort. They then want the state to give more money to local schools to make up for it.

If you haven’t noticed, whenever local officials admit to having money troubles, you can usually expect one of them to refer to the big, mean state government.

The bill, however, is lagging and its prospects are dim.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way, there are very good reasons out there for not wanting to put the county government in charge of a regional fire department like this. There’s an argument that local agencies accustomed to protecting places like Borrego Springs know what they’re doing and could only be hurt if some San Diego bureaucrat starts calling the shots. There are worries about local volunteer firefighters getting disrespected.

But let’s put those aside and assume that, with good leadership, the effort would be worthwhile. Let’s assume that a regional fire agency would have been better able to coordinate the response to the Cedar Fire in 2003.

If you assume all that, then the only thing standing in the way of the regional fire department is money. Which, let’s be honest, is what stands in the way of most anything.

So here are the supervisors wondering where they could possibly get money to do this. The state, you see, has been ripping them off.

Oh the pain.

Yet, at the same time, the supervisors each get $2 million to dole out each year however they please.

And Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, amid all this financial trouble, found $350,000 in county money to hand over to the San Diego Opera last year. Supervisor Bill Horn, who actually represents some of these 950,000 acres of underserved kindling, gave the opera another $80,000 in county money.

Yes, I brought that up again Friday.

On the air, CityBeat Editor Dave Rolland asked me what I had against the opera.

I have nothing against the opera. I really don’t. I can only hope it continues to thrive.

I use it merely as an illustration. Substitute the word “opera” for any of the dozens of organizations that the supervisors supported with county cash.

The illustration’s point is this: It’s not that the county doesn’t have the money available to fund this regional fire department. It’s that its leaders have chosen and continue to choose other priorities for the money they have available.

Look at the employee pension benefit enhancement the supervisors gave all county workers in 2002. It was not only granted from that point forward, but it was granted retroactively as well. That meant that if you were a county worker, you got the nice new pension applied to your entire career rather than just the years from 2002 on. It was such a nice giveaway that county employees retired in droves.

Since then, and because of that benefit boost, the county’s annual payment to its pension system has exploded.

Rather than give employees a boost to their compensation for time already worked, the county could have saved up for a regional fire department.

Now, the employees may very well have deserved such a nice bonus.

And the opera may very well deserve the money it got from Slater-Price and Horn. And the other dozens of groups that received the benevolence of supervisors may have deserved it as well.

But, again, it’s not that the county didn’t have money available to build a regional fire department, it’s that it chooses to spend that money another way.

SCOTT LEWIS

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