Wednesday, March 5, 2008 | As San Diego’s city and county governments congregate to discuss, again, how to fix the region’s wildfire preparedness problems, a key concern overshadows every move they make: How the region will scratch together the cash to better prepare itself for the next massive wildfire.

Past studies have shown it will cost tens millions of dollars to ensure the region is properly prepared to fight in the crucial first hours of firestorms when San Diego is left to defend itself. But previous attempts to raise taxes to pay for extra firefighting resources in the city of San Diego, brought in the wake of 2003’s Cedar Fires, failed at the ballot box. And, since then, local politicians have steadfastly avoided bringing up the issue of raising revenue to pay for better fire protection.

A new proposal by state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, could change the paradigm for local tax increases and bond measures and could offer a lifeline to advocacy groups or politicians keen to resurrect the issue.

In addition to bills that would levy extra taxes on new development in rural areas prone to wildfires and would reimburse local governments for costs incurred during the 2007 wildfires, Kehoe is proposing a measure that would lower the threshold needed for voters to approve bond measures or tax increases aimed specifically at raising money for firefighting equipment.

The bill, the wording of which has not yet been finalized, would call for an amendment to the California Constitution to change the percentage of votes needed from 66 percent to 55 percent. Kehoe said she’s introducing the bill because the last two catastrophic wildfires in 2003 and 2007 showed that the state is poorly prepared for wildfires, and that local governments are inadequately funded to properly defend themselves from firestorms.

“Until we find a consistent, sustainable source of firefighting funding, we’re going to be increasingly vulnerable in Southern California. The fire experts are telling us that the fires in the West, due to climate change and other factors, are going to be more frequent, larger and more intense,” Kehoe said.

Complicating the matter is the plethora of solutions to the region’s firefighting issues currently being discussed. The county Board of Supervisors is assessing the viability and practicality of a countywide fire service. A committee chaired by Supervisor Ron Roberts and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has discussed various tactics, including building a “surge” capacity of fire engines in the county, and a group led by former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman has advocated for the immediate purchase, by the county, of 50 new fire engines that could act as a wildfire strike force.

But while much effort is being focused on assessing San Diego’s firefighting needs, the region’s politicians have so far been silent about how those needs might eventually be met. A spokesman for Roberts said the supervisor feels it’s too soon to talk about how to fund the necessary improvements. In an e-mail, County Supervisor Greg Cox said the issue of funding firefighting in the region is “complex” and that it’s premature to talk about how to fund firefighting going forwards.

“I think we will know more details in the next six months and be in a position to act,” the e-mail reads.

And in the city of San Diego, Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz also said it’s premature to have a discussion about funding firefighting resources. He said it isn’t clear whether additional investment is needed and, if it is, whether local taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

He said the regional committees and commissions that are currently dissecting local firefighting preparedness have yet to come to any conclusions about what is needed to protect the region. That’s going to take months, Sainz said, and now is not the time to make conclusions about whether revenue will need to be raised.

“Some elements of money will be necessary,” Sainz said. “But there’s also getting more resources from the state. It’s not all about digging into people’s pockets.”

But as three different local committees meet to discuss the future of San Diego’s fire preparedness, they are preceded by a stack of reports going back several years, all of which propose fundamental changes, from the mundane to the revolutionary, and all of which conclude that adequate preparedness costs money.

“This isn’t rocket science,” said Augie Ghio, fire chief of the San Miguel Fire District. “There’s absolutely no doubt we need new revenues. Whenever the fire services go through these machinations to work out how to improve fire protection, it always comes down to that.”

Kehoe’s proposal faces a rough ride through both houses of the state Legislature and the Governor’s Office before it even gets on the ballot for voters to consider. The senator said she expects support for the constitutional amendment to fall along partisan lines, and expects to have to fight to keep it alive through the legislative process.

Kehoe’s proposal is similar to Proposition 39, which lowered the threshold for education bonds from 65 percent to 55 percent in 2000. Like that proposition, Kehoe’s new plan, while still in its infancy, has already garnered opposition from taxpayer advocates.

David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers’ Association in Sacramento, said his organization could not comment specifically on Kehoe’s proposal because its wording has not yet been finalized. But Kline said the association is generally opposed to lowering the voting threshold for tax increases.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea,” Kline said. “We’ve historically opposed lowering thresholds for the simple reason that you’re committing property owners to quite a long term and you can’t transfer, repeal or reduce them later.”

At a local level, the proposed legislation has also concerned the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the association, said the proposal is the thin edge of the wedge for local taxpayers.

“There’s no indication that they would stop at this. They could continue to then say: ‘Well, parks are also very important, so lets lower the threshold for local park bonds.’ Then it will be local water bonds and on and on we go.”

But Kehoe said despite the opposition she expects to face, the constitutional amendment is vital to ensuring that local governments can raise the funds they need to properly arm themselves for the state’s next spate of wildfires.

At the very least, Kehoe said, her proposal will get the Legislature talking about how to help local jurisdictions fund their fire protection needs

“The fact of the matter is that unless we have a discussion about how we’re going to fund our greatly expensive firefighting, it’s not going to happen. We’ve got to start somewhere,” she said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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