In February of last year, Pacific Highlands Ranch cut the ribbon on a state-of-the-art fire station. Behind swinging bay doors sat a shiny new fire engine and ladder truck, gems of the developing Carmel Valley community that has paid for its own public facilities through special assessments levied on the community’s developer and homeowners.

In late October, the fire truck was sent away, to North Park’s fire station.

Pacific Highlands Ranch received North Park’s truck, which had many of the same capabilities, but was older.

At the time, the Fire Department told residents the truck would return, though it was unclear when. Pacific Highlands Ranch had little use for it, and did not have the staff to operate it besides, they were told. If the brand new truck had any defects, the department had to find out while it was still covered under warranty. So the truck was transferred to higher-density North Park, where it would get more use.

A year later, the truck has not been returned. Maurice Luque, a Fire Department spokesman, said it was uncertain whether it would be, but said it is common practice for the department to transfer equipment between stations as the need arises.

“The call volume doesn’t really justify an engine and a truck there,” Luque said.

But the $10 million Pacific Highlands Ranch fire station, engine, and truck were paid for by the community’s developer, Pardee Homes. The company will be repaid with money collected from homeowners, whose home purchase prices include a special assessment for the construction of public facilities.

The fire station, which was constructed to accommodate both a smaller fire engine and a ladder truck, has not been staffed with the crew to operate them. A ladder truck requires four operators, and the station has 12 firefighters, who work in shifts of four.

“We only have budget to staff an engine,” Luque said. “We didn’t have money to staff the truck.” With the city’s announcement last week that it faces a $179 million budget deficit in the coming year, the chance of additional fire staff, especially in a low call volume community like Pacific Highlands Ranch, is unlikely.

The truck’s transfer highlights how, because of a dwindling staffing budget, a city resource paid for by a new community for its own use is instead serving elsewhere. The North Park ladder truck sees little action in Pacific Highlands Ranch, while the truck purchased for and by the community ratchets up mileage in North Park, raising the question of whether it was ever needed this early in the first place.

The amount of the facilities benefit assessments are determined based on expectations of community density and how much public facilities will cost to construct.

The city determined the fire equipment the community would need, and set the assessments accordingly, said Manjeet Ranu, a Pacific Highlands Ranch resident and vice chairman of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board.

“If the fire [truck] doesn’t come back, we have succeeded in subsidizing another community,” Ranu said.

Privately funded facilities like parks, libraries and fire stations become publicly owned once constructed. In Pacific Highlands Ranch, residents moved in with expectations that public facilities would follow as population density increased, as outlined in the neighborhood’s community plan. A facilities financing plan lays out timelines for construction, costs, and revenue sources, which are almost entirely from facilities benefit assessments.

But the city’s budget woes have delayed the construction of fully assessment funded capital projects like parks and libraries because of the city’s inability to operate and maintain them.

FBAs are onetime assessments, used to construct the facilities as they are needed. Pacific Highlands Ranch’s need for fire services will grow as its density and population do, and its needs for staffing will be prioritized accordingly, Luque said.

But in the meantime, the fire truck that it and other assessment-funded communities are required to pay will continue to serve neighborhoods like North Park which do not have similar funding mechanisms.

“We just wanted to get the miles on the new truck,” Luque said, “so that any repairs would be paid for by the manufacturer.”

Fire trucks, he said, have a lifespan of roughly 15 years.

Asked whether the truck might be expired by the time Pacific Highlands Ranch was able to staff it, he said, “it’s hard to say or to speculate.”

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Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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