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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008 | As fire season gets into full swing, the lackluster campaign for Proposition A, a ballot measure that would impose a parcel tax on county residents to pay for increased fire protection, would be given a much-needed boost by support from local firefighters and firefighters’ unions.

But the county’s firefighters are reluctant to support the measure, according to representatives of local firefighters’ unions. Local firefighters have a deep-rooted distrust of the county Board of Supervisors, which approved the measure for the ballot, and firefighting unions were ignored in the creation of the proposal and are therefore reluctant to support it, the officials said.

That another key demographic, rank-and-file firefighters, is failing to throw its full weight behind the proposition is further evidence of its stagnation, as it has failed to gain traction among local politicians and fire officials.

It also places the proposition’s supporters in the awkward and unusual situation of squeezing taxpayers for money that the firefighting community hasn’t expressly asked for, via a measure it doesn’t even support.

The union reps said they aren’t actively opposing the measure because any additional funding is good for local fire protection. But they said they’re not campaigning for it either, and in interviews expressed deep skepticism about how the proposition was drafted, whether it’s a good plan for local residents, and whether the promised revenue would even end up being used to pay for firefighting.

“Those people don’t want to do a thing for firefighting,” said Frank DeClercq, president of Local 145, the union for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and the largest firefighting union in the county. “The Board of Supervisors is just a Republican orgy using taxpayers’ money. We need to flush them out.”

Jim Duffy, spokesman for Supervisor Ron Roberts, who is pushing the measure, said if local firefighters are opposed to the measure because the Board of Supervisors approved it for the ballot, then they’re completely missing the mark.

The ordinance that accompanies the ballot measure states that the Board of Supervisors will have very little to do with the day-to-day allocation of the funds raised by the proposition, Duffy said.

The ordinance spells out the creation of a new authority, the Regional Fire Protection Agency, which would be governed by a 10-member board of directors. Only one member of the board would be a county supervisor.

“It’s as pure as it could possibly be,” Duffy said.

Distrust between firefighters and the Board of Supervisors has been fomenting since the 1970s, when the county got out of the firefighting business, said Augie Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, who has been working as a point man for the county on Proposition A.

In 1992, California voters passed Proposition 172, which introduced a statewide half-cent sales tax to raise money for public safety services. In San Diego, the majority of that money has been funneled towards the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office, and many local firefighters feel they were short-changed by the county, said Dave Allan, a former firefighter who’s now a city councilman in La Mesa.

Allan said that proposition was only approved after firefighters played an integral role in marketing the measure. Proposition 172 also received a notable publicity boost from a massive wildfire in Orange County that destroyed hundreds of homes and hit weeks before the election.

Echoing the concerns of local union officials, Allan said local firefighters are skeptical about how Proposition A funds will eventually be spent, given their experience with Proposition 172.

“Do I think fire will get its fair share? No,” Allan said. “The bottom line is that the Board of Supervisors has neglected its responsibility for fire protection.”

Evan McLaughlin, political director of San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, an umbrella organization that represents more than 100 local unions, said his organization did not support Proposition A for the same reason. McLaughlin said the Labor Council didn’t get a single recommendation from any International Association of Firefighters local union, so it opposed the measure.

“Why would rank-and-file firefighters want to blindly support a tax increase that’s going to hit them as much as anyone else in the county?” McLaughlin said. “Given the distrust of the county in the way they spent the Prop. 172 money, there’s not a track record there we could get behind.”

Proposition A differs from Proposition 172 in that it specifically earmarks funds for fire protection, rather than for the broader pool of public safety. But Rick Fisher, president of the San Diego County Council of Firefighters, a regional umbrella group for more than 30 local firefighting unions, said the proposition still has some wiggle room that concerns firefighters.

“The proposition doesn’t spell out that the money will be spent to put more firefighting boots on the ground or to buy new fire engines or fire hose,” Fisher said. “There’s nothing to say it will improve what we’re looking to improve, which is firefighting in the East County’s back country.”

There’s no definitive plan for how the roughly $50 million that would be raised by Proposition A would actually be spent something Ghio admitted is a drawback of the measure. The Regional Fire Protection Agency would be responsible for spending half of the income from the proposition. The other half would be distributed among existing local firefighting agencies.

But Duffy pointed out that the ordinance spells out in detail what the revenue could be sent on and how it should be spent. Indeed, the ordinance devotes several pages to detailing and defining the uses for which the money can be spent.

“It’s clearly in there, this can only go to fire protection,” Duffy said.

Apart from what they see as the flaws in the proposition itself, Fisher and DeClercq also lamented that firefighting unions weren’t given a seat around the table when the proposition was being drawn up.

The measure was largely conceived and created at the Regional Fire Protection Committee, a group created in the wake of last year’s massive wildfires and chaired by Supervisor Ron Roberts and Mayor Jerry Sanders. Organized labor wasn’t represented at the meetings, but some union reps made public comments about the process. Mayoral spokesman Darren Pudgil said the meetings were inclusive.

“We consulted with firefighting experts who gave us what we were looking for — expertise,” Pudgil said. “A broad cross-section of elected officials and firefighting experts was assembled.”

Fisher said his organization and other unions should have at least been consulted when Proposition A was being crafted.

“Why would we get behind something that affects us so immediately, when we’ve had no role in putting it together?” Fisher said.

And Ghio, who has the difficult task of educating the public about the proposition without the support of a concerted public relations campaign, said the measure’s backers should have worked harder to bring the firefighting unions on board before the proposition was put on the ballot.

“They’re paying for it now. I really think that you can’t exclude our local firefighter labor representatives because they’re the ones that make it happen, with the boots on the ground,” Ghio said.

“Hopefully in any future initiatives that come up, they’ll be a stakeholder in that development,” he added.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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