As wildfires devastated San Diego neighborhoods this week, chronic and systematic underfunding of public safety services left the region needlessly vulnerable to the destruction.
That is the conclusion of the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), a non-profit research organization based in San Diego.
"Although this is a region with extreme natural fire hazards, anti-tax politics have led to an undersupply of fire stations, equipment and personnel to adequately fight fires," said CPI president Donald Cohen. "Our 2005 study, The Bottom Line, documented that San Diego's per capita spending on fire protection is the third lowest among large California cities, and the number of firefighters per 1,000 residents is the lowest."
The full text of the report is available online here.
Then-San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman resigned last year because the city refused to fund additional firefighters and equipment he said were needed after the disastrous Cedar fire of 2003. For the city's size, Bowman said, San Diego is short 22 fire stations and hundreds of firefighters.
The city has failed to implement many of the recommendations for increased funding in reports following the 2003 fire by both the city's own staff and a state Blue Ribbon Fire Commission . The city budget in 2005 identified a long-term need for $478 million in new funding for public safety services -- a need that remains unfilled. Only one station and seven firefighters were added to the city budget this year.
Just this spring, Mayor of Jerry Sanders refused to give firefighters any pay raise while giving all other city employees cost of living increases.
"San Diego firefighters were beginning to look for jobs elsewhere because of low morale and inadequate resources," Cohen said. "They have performed heroically despite repeated failures by the City to invest in public safety.
"Together with other emergency responders, they have done an outstanding job in responding with new systems, efficient coordination between agencies, orderly evacuations and round-the-clock shifts."
San Diego County does not have a countywide fire department, but depends on a patchwork of 17 municipal fire departments, 28 special fire districts and many volunteer agencies.
A 2003 report from the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission detailed the funding difficulties faced by these agencies because of Proposition 13 restrictions and voter reluctance to approve tax measures.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute -- or "think tank" -- that researches the impact of economic trends and policies on working people in the United States and around the world.