Carmel Valley Fire District Split Gains Support in California

A idea of dividing the Carmel Valley Fire District advanced this week when the Local Agency Formation Commission voted to accept a petition in favor of making two districts out of one.

Voting in favor of a motion to allow the separation process to proceed were commissioners Anna Caballero, Jim Costello, Lou Calcagno and Vince DiMaggio. Dissenting on Monday were commissioners Jerry Smith and Tom Perkins, and alternate commissioner Peggy Sherrill.

The narrow vote was cause for celebration by the Valley Volunteers Inc., an organization of volunteer firefighters who petitioned for detaching the old Carmel Valley Fire Protection District away from the consolidated district.

Officials of the united district were crestfallen.

"We're in a state of numbness," said Fire Chief Sidney Reade. She was disappointed, she said, because the commission in April seemed to be following a staff recommendation to deny the petition.

"If it had been properly agendized, that's how they would have voted" last month, she said.

But a sea change appeared to have occurred in the past month.

"The merits of the case were actually brought out by both sides," said David Cummings, a battalion chief at the district's Carmel Village station and a member of Valley Volunteers. "The commissioners decided that the best thing for everybody was to separate the two fire districts."

If the detachment goes through, Cummings added, "we're going to be good neighbors." He said there is no reason that two departments with different philosophies can't work together in their common interests.

"I think the (LAFCO) commissioners voted based on the number of e-mails they got," said attorney Ann McGowan, a member of both the LAFCO and the Carmel Valley Fire District boards.

McGowan was on her way home from Europe at the time of Monday's meeting and was unable to attend. Sherrill is her alternate on the LAFCO board.

McGowan said the 4-3 vote "is not a final decision" and that detachment proponents will still have to prove that a separated district can pay its way and that public services won't suffer.

"One of the main reasons for consolidation," McGowan said, "was to provide services at an affordable cost."

The LAFCO vote, she added, has derailed the district's efforts to put together a labor agreement with its paid firefighting staff. "Everything's off the table. We thought we had a plausible, reasonable resolution of our memorandum of understanding with our paid staff. We can't do that now."

The consolidated fire district was formed Jan. 1, 2001, by combining the Carmel Valley and Mid-Valley fire districts and extending fire service to the Santa Lucia Community Service District on Rancho San Carlos.

The district covers 50 square miles and operates three fire stations serving a population of 20,000 with 19 paid professional firefighters and staff members and 71 volunteers.

Valley Volunteers Inc. last summer gathered signatures of resident voters of the old district asking the Local Agency Formation Commission for a return to the original boundaries of the Carmel Valley Fire District. Those boundaries are from the west end of Miramonte Road to the east end of San Clemente Road.

The volunteers have contended that service in their area has been reduced and surplus funds built up by the separate district have been eaten away to cover expenses in other areas of the valley.

Officials of the consolidated district deny anything of the kind and argue that the valley is better served and protected by a single public safety agency.

Speakers at the meeting presented both sides' assertions about financing the district and its ability to provide services, Reade said. "What they couldn't address was oil and water." The two districts are two different communities, she added, "and no matter how hard you shake it, it's just not going to come together."

Valley Volunteers threatened to leave the department if the detachment petition was denied, Reade said, and she assured LAFCO commissioners that the combined district could replace them if they chose to do so. "I thought it would be sad, but we have a plan in place to make sure the citizens don't suffer, if that's what they want."

Meanwhile, she said, district firefighters have been told to "carry on as normal and make the changes we need to make. We're not detached today."

Distributed by the Associated Press