As large-scale fires become a regular phenomenon in San Diego, we need to take stock of the umbrella of public institutions providing local firefighting resources. Broken by statewide constitutional constraints such as Proposition 13 (of 1978) and its protégé Proposition 218 (of 1996), this protective umbrella has been shredded in the hostile winds of San Diego’s anti-tax climate.

Over the past three decades, our local fire-fighting capacity has been damaged in multiple ways.

First, the statewide initiatives halved the collections of property taxes, which most fire districts relied on. No longer able to float general obligation bonds to pay for needed fire facilities, fire agencies had to backfill by cutting service levels. Although other cities like Los Angeles were savvy enough to raise revenues by levying non-taxes and fees, the city of San Diego, with one of the lowest per capita revenue in the state, became “America’s Cheapest City.” In the city of San Diego, our average fire engine response time increased from four minutes to over five minutes during the decade following Proposition 13, and has never dropped back. We now boast of the lowest number of firefighters per capita among comparable jurisdictions in the country. The city needs an additional $40 million and the county needs $50 million annually to fund fire services at a level that residents need. In a frantic plea after the 2003 wildfires, the manager for the City of San Diego wrote:

In the majority of reports to the Mayor and City Council, the prevailing theme has been the lack of available and sustainable revenue.

Secondly, the initiatives imposed an insurmountable two-thirds voter requirement for approval of taxes that specifically funded firefighting. This is remarkable since Proposition 13 itself did not meet the threshold. In the two decades following Proposition 13, there were 50 ballot measures in San Diego asking for increased revenue for firefighting, and only 18 of them got the two-thirds voter approval. Even after the Cedar fire, ballot initiatives that dedicated funding for fire protection in Ramona and the city of San Diego failed.

Thirdly, the initiatives capped the annual growth of property taxes at 2 percent. This does not account for the non-linear impacts of population growth and density on environmental factors (such as high-rises, sprawl) affecting public safety. Fire districts therefore became dependent on facilities benefits assessments, meaning they are increasingly reliant on new development to fund new facilities, even when that development occurs in hazardous areas. As a result , fire districts splintered and merged and contracted and morphed in a desperate attempt to squeeze revenues out of new construction. In San Diego County, there is no regional firefighting agency, since voters have never approved a district-wide tax. Thus a patchwork of 28 emergency providers provides services unevenly and randomly across the unincorporated area of the region.

Finally, the state initiatives left the distribution of local property taxes to the vagaries of the state budget. Since property tax levels in San Diego County prior to Proposition 13 were lower than average, the county receives a lower than average share of the ensuing state bailout. Now that the size of the pie itself was constrained, as new districts were added or schools got more funding, they led to regional fights for the share of the pie.

The result of these initiatives and the hostile anti-tax climate has been a long-term damage to San Diego’s ability to provide a decent level of service. The Insurance Service Office (ISO) evaluates three major areas — the fire department (50 percent), water supply and fire alarm and communications systems — in grading communities across the nation. Insurers of homes and business property use ISO’s Public Protection Classifications in calculating premiums. ISO Class 1 is considered exemplary, classes 8 and 9 are considered underserved and Class 10 as having no service. Seven communities in Los Angeles and none in San Diego County are Class 1. Among the cities affected by the fire, Escondido is Class 2 and Poway is Class 3. Twenty-two of the unincorporated county’s 28 structural fire protection agencies have an ISO classification (or split classification) of 9. Of these, seven agencies are rated exclusively Class 9. Almost a million acres in the San Diego region (more than 10,000 residents) are not under the protection of any fire agency, and are rated Class 10.

In the city of San Diego, it is not surprising that the city failed to meet national accreditation due to a shortage of 22 fire stations and 400 firefighters. What is surprising is the nonchalance of the San Diego establishment in doing anything about the failed level of service. When a frustrated fire chief Jeff Bowman resigned following the city’s refusal to provide needed fire-fighting resources, the local newspaper editorialized:

City Hall is disappointed that it is losing a chief with Bowman’s experience and vision, not to mention his candor. But city officials also know that San Diego plainly did not, does not and will not soon have the money to fund the fire department Bowman envisioned.

Thus in the city of San Diego, communities without facilities funds or wealthy patrons are asked to eat cake while the fire burns. In the community of Rancho Bernardo, where most destruction from the Witch Fire seems to have occurred, the city’s fire accreditation study identified a need for two additional fire stations per national standards of an engine per nine square miles. The current Rancho Bernardo fire station is expected to service 167 road miles, the worst in the city, when the average for the 45 districts in the city is 91 road miles.

The fire of under-funded services is burning into San Diegans’ wallets in other ways as well. According to ISO national averages, the cost of fire losses for homeowners’ policies in communities graded Class 9 is 65 percent higher than in communities graded Class 5. Thus when we fail to invest in our firefighting capacity — which would be, in effect, insuring our communities against regularly occurring wildfires — we see our homeowner insurance premiums rise significantly.

San Diegans cannot change the forces of nature, but we sure can confront the anti-tax climate and rebuild the umbrella of our public institutions.


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