County fire department seeks funding solution
by Joe Shreve
Jan 31, 2013 | 1328 views | 2 2 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Faced with the grim reality of rapidly deteriorating firefighting equipment, county fire advisers will spend several weeks researching avenues of raising money to suggest to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.

Among a slew of budgetary concerns discussed at the meeting of the Santa Cruz County Fire Department Advisory Board on Wednesday, Jan. 16, was the advancing state of disrepair on County Fire’s aging fleet of fire trucks, tankers and other equipment — brought on by two years and $2.8 million of deferred maintenance due to budget constraints.

“We have a two-year lead on a train wreck,” said Arnie Wernick, the board’s representative from the 5th Supervisorial District, which includes the San Lorenzo Valley and part of Scotts Valley. “We won’t have equipment to respond with if we don’t act now.”

County Fire is the year-round branch of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Santa Cruz County. County Fire stations are funded by property tax revenue and staffed in part by Cal Fire crews, County Fire employees and volunteer companies. 

According to board chairman Alex Leman, although the board members have not settled upon a plan to present to the supervisors, securing funding for equipment is the board’s primary goal.

“What we decided to do is place a high priority on replacing or repairing some of the apparatus that are having issues,” he said. “We didn’t actually decide on what form that would take.”

According to staff reports, eight of the department’s 12 fire engines are more than 20 years old, and of that number, four are nonoperational.

Leman said the board would be considering many options to raise money for equipment repairs and upgrades, and a bond measure proposal or tax could be entertained.

“We need to talk to some of the financial folks down at the county,” he said. “Either rule the (options) in or rule them out.”

Leman said the board realized that any appeal to taxpayers would be a difficult sell in the wake of a $150 fee state legislators levied on property owners in December to support Cal Fire, the department’s partner agency. The fee was reduced to $115 for residents who live in a fire district.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Leman said. “(Any proposed tax or bond measure is) going to require an awful lot of education on our part — people just paid $115.”

Scott Jalbert, who took over as chief of the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Cal Fire unit on Tuesday, Jan. 22, said at the Jan. 16 meeting that finding money for equipment as soon as possible was essential for the survival of County Fire as an effective firefighting agency.

“You can have all the firefighters in the world,” Jalbert said. “But if the engine can’t leave the barn, it’s not going to do any good.”

Members of the advisory board will decide what action to ask supervisors to take during a special meeting that will be scheduled in late February.

To comment, email reporter Joe Shreve at, call 438-2500 or post a comment at

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Steve Homan
January 31, 2013
County Fire is NOT a branch of Cal Fire. It is the County of Santa Cruz, contracting with Cal Fire, to operate 5 fire stations in the rural areas, outside of real fire districts. The areas served include Davenport/Swanton, Bonny Doon, Skyline, Loma Prieta, and Corralitos. Taxes are partially collected by a fire flow fee, per residence or business. The taxing mechanism is County Service Area #48. County Fire CSA #48 is staffed by local volunteer firefighters and by Cal Fire employees and administration.
Steve Homan
January 31, 2013
The Fire Dept. Advisory Commission (FDAC) is not a Board, it is a commission appointed ONLY to advise the County Board of Supervisors. That is its ONLY duty. Repeat, it is NOT A BOARD.

The FDAC members say the same stuff every year. Poor us, may we have a tax increase please? Instead, let's audit County Fire and Cal Fire to see where the 3 million County Fire dollars actually goes. Let's audit how many ACTUAL volunteers remain. (Cal Fire got a 500k grant to recruit and train volunteers? Where is THAT money? Where are the new volunteers?)

The County hands over about 3 million dollars a year to run "County Fire", which consists of 5 stations, a handful of REAL ACTUAL volunteers and a larger number of ON PAPER volunteers, and some Cal Fire Staff.

Chief Jalbert says: “You can have all the firefighters in the world,” Jalbert said. “But if the engine can’t leave the barn, it’s not going to do any good.” Dear Chief Jalbert, the converse is also true. If you scare away too many of the volunteers, or you don't train them promptly, there is no one to drive the fire engines, either.

The truth is that County Fire has not had a fire engine replacement plan for years. Instead, it has burned through its past tax surplus paying for 5 stations when it was only funded for 4 stations. Few new engines have been bought, but a lot of Cal Fire personnel have been paid for at the extra station.

Thus, there is a need for a management plan and an audit. Or, the County could run this department on its own. Or, outlying areas could be allowed to form their own districts, self funded by local taxes and run for the interest of each community, like the SLV Districts. Instead, we have Cal Fire running County Fire to serve its own interests. The 2006 Grand Jury even stated this.

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