Panel Rejects Split Fire District in Carmel Valley, California

A breakup of the Carmel Valley Fire Protection District into two fire districts was narrowly rejected Monday by county government commissioners.

Members of the Local Agency Formation Commission voted 4-3 to reject a call by volunteer firefighters and residents of the Carmel Valley Village area to split off from the five-year-old larger district.

The decision came after months of fractious debate among fire officials, firefighters and Carmel Valley residents over the fate of the Carmel Valley district.

LAFCO commissioner Jim Costello, mayor of Pacific Grove, likened the dispute to the smell of skunks getting worse the closer one gets.

But commissioner Jerry Smith, a Monterey County supervisor, said splitting the district into two smaller districts would harm emergency services and go against the sworn duty of firefighters to protect the public.

"There really has to be a meeting of the minds," said commissioner Anna Caballero, mayor of Salinas, who joined with Smith and commissioners Anne McGowan and Tom Perkins to reject the proposed split.

"The bottom line is that people want good service out there," Caballero said.

For several months, the commission was weighing a petition by Valley Volunteers Inc., a group of volunteer firefighters in Carmel Valley Village, to split the district in two.

The secession would have split a consolidated district that was formed in 2001 to join the Carmel Valley and Mid-Valley districts and extend service to Rancho San Carlos. The big district covers more than 50 square miles, has three fire stations, employs 19 professional firefighters and 58 volunteers and serves 20,000 residents.

Supporters of returning to smaller districts complained of financial mismanagement and said many midvalley volunteers would leave the district if the split weren't approved.

Commissioner Vince DiMaggio, a public representative, accused the fire district of never turning over financial information that LAFCO members needed to make the decision.

"You've successfully filibustered... and that ticks me off," DiMaggio said.

In 2004, Valley Volunteers mounted a petition drive seeking restoration of the old boundaries of the Carmel Valley Fire District between Miramonte Road and San Clemente Road. The volunteers contended that services in their area had been shortchanged while surplus funds were used to cover expenses in other parts of Carmel Valley.

Officials of the consolidated district maintained the entire valley is better served by a single fire district. The ongoing push to create a city in Carmel Valley and a dispute between the consolidated district and state tax officials complicated the issue.

In a staff report, LAFCO executive officer Kate McKenna said the fire district secessionists failed to prove that fire protection would be improved by splitting the consolidated district.

The report also took issue with secessionists' claims that the consolidated district is financially mismanaged. In fiscal year 2003-04, an audit showed the district took in $4,400 more than it spent "contrary to the large loss being asserted," the report said.

In May, commissioners voted to accept the secessionists' petition, but in July they delayed a hearing on the division because they said a financial feasibility study on the proposed split was incomplete.

Distributed by the Associated Press