Monterey County, California Fire District Decision Delayed

Hoping that an obviously divided community can come together, the Local Agency Formation Commission of Monterey County put off a decision Monday on detaching part of the Carmel Valley Fire Protection District into a separate district.

The commission staff has recommended that the detachment petition be denied on grounds that the petitioners' objections to the consolidated fire district -- that service has suffered and that money has been mismanaged -- are unfounded.

Valley Volunteers Inc., an organization of volunteer firefighters, last summer gathered signatures of residents asking the commission for a return to the original boundaries of the Carmel Valley Fire District. Those boundaries cover an area from the west end of Miramonte Road to the east end of San Clemente Road.

The volunteers contend 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 since the Carmel Valley and Mid-Valley fire districts and the Santa Lucia Community Services District were joined into one district four years ago.

But senior LAFCO analyst Kristina Berry recommended the petition be turned down.

The petition shows no evidence that a reduced level of service is occurring, she said in a report to the commissioners.

Budget reserve funds have been reduced in the district in recent years, she wrote, but that could be due to a number of factors: major equipment purchases or tax revenue shortfalls. There is no evidence, she said, of mismanagement.

And, she said, proponents of redividing the district have not shown a plan that would provide more efficient services.

Complaints about the management of fire district personnel, Berry said, should be addressed by the district, not LAFCO.

A mediation process might be a better approach than detachment, she said.

A number of speakers repeated statements at Monday's hearing that the village fire station is often unstaffed; that when a resident knocks on the door, nobody's home; and that calls to the district by village residents are answered at the Mid-Valley station and most of the district staff works there as well.

They voiced fears that the district plans to eventually eliminate the village station.

Berry said it is not unusual for fire districts to relocate staffers to provide better coverage to areas.

Fire Chief Sidney Reade said that when staffers are away from the village station, it means they are out training, inspecting or answering calls.

"The station," she said, "is not closed."

The telephone system for the district routes calls to Mid-Valley, she said, where questions about anything within the district can be answered.

Fire district board President Bob Rice noted that the seven-member board voted unanimously against detachment, and questioned, "What is the overriding problem? What is the overriding benefit?"

The detachment campaign, he said, was "sparked by a small group that wants to turn back the clock."

Former Carmel Valley Fire Chief Bill Simms said residents felt "pushed" to consolidate the districts, and volunteer Battalion Chief David Cummings, a member of Valley Volunteers, said village residents "need a department we can rely on."

The local volunteers, he said, know best how to serve their community.

Cummings said he has not talked directly with Chief Reade in two years, and other volunteers said they have been left out of decision-making, have not been informed of changes in the district and are treated as subordinates by the paid staff.

"What disturbs me," said Commissioner Tom Perkins, "is that I find a lot of underriding dissatisfaction."

His own experience as a firefighter and fire district board member, Perkins said, has taught him that "volunteers are important. If you're not in great fiscal shape, why aren't you reaching out to the volunteers?"

LAFCO Executive Director Kate McKenna said it would be "premature" to go ahead with a reorganization of the district when a municipal service plan for the proposed incorporated town of Carmel Valley is still in the works. A draft of that plan should be ready in the next few months, she said.

"The teamwork sounds like it's fallen apart here," said Commissioner Jim Costello, who proposed delaying a decision until the municipal service plan was finished. The commission unanimously agreed.

Denial of the detachment petition would remove the pressure on both sides to come together and work things out, said commission Chairman Lou Calcagno, and he wants to keep the pressure on.

State law sets a limit on LAFCO continuances of 70 days, so the matter will be reviewed at the commission meeting in April, and may be continued again until its July meeting if both sides are willing to accept that long a delay.