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After city of San Diego firefighters took more than nine minutes to arrive when 2-year-old Bentley Do choked to death on a gumball in July, city leaders talked big about ending the budget cuts that led to the Fire Department’s slow response.
Do it now, they said.
Two months later, the cuts remain. But money exists to restore them temporarily. City politicians point fingers at each other or say they only want a long-term solution. Even the head of the firefighters union now is against an immediate restoration of the cuts if it’s only temporary.
Since Do’s death, city leaders have decided to place a sales tax increase on the November ballot. Fire cuts have become a talking point for supporters of the measure, Proposition D. They promise to restore cuts afterward, if the measure passes.
The only people still talking about ending the fire cuts right away are the proposition’s opponents.
If politics are part of any city leader’s decision-making on fire cuts, said Andy Berg, head of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s local chapter, it should stop.
“You don’t play politics with my children’s life and death,” said Berg, an outspoken opponent of the cuts.
San Diego’s Fire Department is idling or “browning out” up to eight of the department’s 47 fire engines a day to save money.
But there’s money left over in city coffers. There is $4.5 million more than the city’s targets in a reserve fund. Some of that money is earmarked to pay for elections and the parks department.
Even after those expenses, there’s enough to restore all the idled engines through the end of the year. Or there’s enough to restore three engines, which Fire Chief Javier Mainar has identified as the most critical, through next June. City leaders could do either without dipping below their target for reserves.
San Diego’s fire chiefs, present and past, would like the engines back.
“If there are monies available to even restore one of the brownouts that’s of interest to me,” Mainar said.
“Philosophically, if there’s funds you should make sure public safety is your number one,” said former Chief Tracy Jarman. “That you get it back on line.”
“I’d like to see it go back to restore those units that are browned out,” said former Chief Jeff Bowman. “Of course I would. Why would I not?”
Both Jarman and Bowman said they didn’t know details of the city’s current financial situation or city leaders’ reasons for not tapping reserves. Mainar said Mayor Jerry Sanders told him he wants to keep the reserves because of the city’s ongoing budget problems. The City Council, Mainar said, hasn’t decided to use the money.
The city’s political leaders blame each other.
Sanders said City Council could tap reserves if it wanted. A spokeswoman for Council President Ben Hueso said no city committee had requested Hueso put brownouts on the council agenda. A spokeswoman for Councilwoman Marti Emerald, the public safety committee’s chairwoman, said Emerald asked Sanders to restore the cuts.
Frank De Clercq, head of the city’s firefighters union, said no less than a permanent restoration of all eight engines was good enough.
“That is just another Band-Aid approach,” De Clercq said of using reserves.
To be sure, reserves won’t end the brownouts in the long term. The city faces another $72 million deficit on July 1. Recently, the mayor asked the Fire Department to identify an additional $7 million in cuts.
Sanders said he didn’t support using any reserves to pay for an ongoing expense like fire engines. Similar decisions in the past were a cause of San Diego’s financial problems, he said. Making a political case for Prop. D has nothing to do with it.
“We don’t have enough money to go around,” Sanders said. “That’s not political. That’s a fact of life.”
Some council members tried to restore some of the engines in June, before Do died. Other council members, including those who are pushing hardest to end the cuts now, blocked them.
Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Carl DeMaio voted against using some of the same reserves to restore three engines during a June budget hearing. Hueso and Councilman Tony Young effectively did the same thing because they didn’t show up to the hearing. The remaining four council members couldn’t pass a budget without Faulconer or DeMaio’s support, and neither budged on brownouts.
Right after Do’s death, Young issued a memo asking Sanders to restore the cuts by using reserves and reducing other costs.
Right after Prop. D went on the ballot, Prop. D opponents Faulconer and DeMaio issued memos asking Sanders to restore cuts without using reserves. Faulconer wanted to change how the Fire Department staffed its engines. DeMaio wanted to use savings from pension payments and cuts to mayoral and council budgets.
Even without any action, brownouts remain sensitive.
Faulconer has accused Prop. D supporters of playing politics because they haven’t ended the brownouts.
Right after Faulconer released his memo on the brownouts, Faulconer spokesman Tony Manolatos said, the mayor confronted Faulconer’s chief of staff, Aimee Faucett, in the lobby of City Hall. Sanders, Manolatos said, didn’t like the memo.
He gave Faucett a “tongue lashing” and threatened to hold another press conference highlighting the brownouts in Faulconer’s district.