An updated report on government spending in Southern California portrays San Diego as the region’s most frugal urban county when it comes to fire protection, spending less on a per-capita basis than both Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The National University Research and Policy Institute last looked at fire protection spending after the 2007 firestorms. Some critics questioned the previous report’s numbers and whether comparing the counties is fair because the urban-wildlife interface is different in each county.

Erik Bruvold, founder of the San Diego-based institute, acknowledges that comparing the counties on fire protection isn’t a perfect science. The numbers are based on annual budgets and reports to state officials. Some information was unavailable to the researchers. He said it’s like “apples to apples, but it might be Granny Smiths to Macintosh.”

San Diego Gas & Electric, which funded the recent report, cited the findings in the previous report in its summer campaign for the controversial shut-off plan. The utility has argued that unusual actions like the shut-off plan are necessary because local governments are unable to allocate more funding toward fire protection in an economic recession.

SDG&E approached the Research and Policy Institute after the first report and requested it conduct an updated study with data from the last fiscal year. It handed over $19,000 to help pay for the consultation of Jeff Bowman, the former chief of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department. Since leaving the department, Bowman has been critical of the region’s fire protection resources and has advocated for more fire stations.

SDG&E says it did not participate in the research, writing or timing of the study’s release. Still, the company has an invested interest in any report that advocates for more fire protection spending from local governments. More resources in the backcountry could mean the utility has to spend less on safeguarding its own facilities. The utility announced new efforts on Tuesday to pay for contract firefighters and a helicopter this fall.

It’s important to note that San Diego County has a significantly larger state responsibility area than Los Angeles or Orange. The rural and state responsibility areas are more prone to wildfires and harder to patrol effectively because fewer people live there.

The policy institute’s report also does not take into account the difference between state funding for each county. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection budgeted $18.8 million for San Diego, $15.1 million for Los Angeles and $4 million for Orange. The state pays Los Angeles and Orange county fire departments to patrol state land. San Diego pays the state to cover some of its backcountry.

I’m waiting to hear back from County Supervisor Dianne Jacob on the latest report. Please e-mail me with your thoughts on the report: keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org

— KEEGAN KYLE

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