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After a calm introduction, Stephen Whitburn turned to a stack of papers clutched in his right hand and started shaking them feverishly in front of the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
“Where is the real funding in this plan?” he asked. “It is time for us to do more than move the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic when it comes to fire protection in San Diego County.”
A few feet away, Ron Roberts watched his challenger’s comments with a plain stare. Then, after two minutes, Whitburn ended his remarks and sat down. Moments later, the supervisors approved the plan Whitburn had acknowledged as a positive step.
The board spent $5 million to improve firefighting equipment and create new training facilities for East County firefighters. The one-time expense boosted the county’s already-budgeted $15 million for the Regional Fire Authority, a contracted service with Cal Fire to buttress backcountry fire agencies.
The additional funds came from an equal reduction in a controversial county grants program, which now gives each supervisor $1 million annually to earmark for nonprofits of their choosing.
Earlier this year, the county paid an independent consultant to study ways to improve fire protection in the region. Its study recommended buying a new helicopter, replacing some volunteers with career firefighters, expanding volunteer firefighter training, consolidating fire agencies and reorganizing the Regional Fire Authority.
The new funding would improve equipment and training, but left some of the larger items for future discussion. The supervisors said they plan to study in 2012 the recommendation to add career firefighters and said funding the new helicopter and consolidating fire agencies would be considered when funding became available.
Previously, the Regional Fire Authority operated as part of the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use. The study recommended the agency move under the supervision of the county’s public safety executive, and its operational leader, the local Cal Fire unit chief, be made the fire chief for the Regional Fire Authority. The county approved those changes without impact to its budget.
But Whitburn told the board that wasn’t enough. He said the changes “merely gets our underfunded agency in the right place on the organization chart.” He advocated for more spending, but didn’t say what the county should buy. He plans to announce a fire protection plan later this month.
After Whitburn’s public comments, each of the supervisors commended their efforts to improve fire protection in the past decade. Before the 2003 wildfires, the county did little for fire protection. While other cities are cutting fire protection, they said, the county is spending more.
Roberts didn’t name Whitburn, but alluded to his earlier comments.
“Whenever we hear about the Titanic, I think it’s an indication that the election season has started and with that usually comes ignorance of what these reports mean and the actions that we’ve taken,” he said.
Roberts highlighted Proposition A, the failed 2008 initiative that would have raised $50 million annually for the region’s fire agencies. Roberts championed the ballot measure two years ago but it wasn’t supported by the region’s firefighters. Voters narrowly defeated the measure. That’s provided fodder for Whitburn to criticize Roberts.
Roberts said the $5 million in additional spending and another $36,000 grant toward wildfire detection exemplified how he has worked with the board and firefighters.
“We were bitterly disappointed (about Proposition A), but we’re not using that as an excuse to not keep doing things. And you’ve seen today a number of items on this agenda that support that,” Roberts said.