On Wednesday evening, Aug. 3, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District election forum attracted more than 40 people to the Idyllwild Nature Center. When time was nearing 7 p.m. and moderator St. Sen. Bill Emmerson still had many cards with questions, he asked the attendees whether they want to hear closing statements or answers to additional questions.
“More questions” was the overwhelming choice and Emmerson posed several more questions to the six candidates before the evening concluded about 7:30 p.m.
The six candidates are incumbents Pete Capparelli and Paul Riggi and four challengers, Jerry Buchanan, Larry Donahoo, Paul Miglin and Mark Spehar. Emmerson agreed to moderate the evening. Cards were circulated to the audience who wrote their questions on them, which Emmerson used to ask the candidates.
The following includes the questions and each candidate’s answer. Since the session was neither recorded nor taped, this is not a transcript of the evening.
Q. Do you feel that a greater savings to the budget could be made by requiring fire personnel to contribute more towards their own retirement?
Paul Riggi: Firefighters are more than willing to balance their benefits and the district.
Pete Capparelli: The firefighters and the board have negotiated a contract. They are good guys and underpaid. No one could have seen where the economy is. But we’re working on this.
Jerry Buchanan: This is an important question. Eighty-five percent of the budget is salaries and benefits, so a readjustment is a major issue. In the short-term, the firefighters have given some back. But long-term there is a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) built into the package.
Half the taxpayers are on Social Security and no COLA. About 50 percent of the kids enrolled in the Idyllwild School qualify for free lunches, which means their parents’ income is less than $30,000. What can the community afford and what’s it willing to give?
Larry Donahoo: We have only this much money. Whatever it takes to stay within that, we’ve got to budget better. There’s only so much money to spend. It’s only projections about what comes in.
Paul Miglin: There are a variety of incomes and the economy and housing markets vary greatly. But the department needs to work within its income.
Mark Spehar: Pay may be a little more than elsewhere. But it’s only a temporary reduction until economy recovers. There is a reason for 3 percent COLA.
Q. Do you feel inspections in Idyllwild are being done in a timely manner?
Capparelli: There are more than 3,000 parcels in Idyllwild and just under 1,000 inspections have been done. That’s a lot to inspect. The guys are working hard this summer. But if they have to transport someone off the Hill, it can lock them up for four to five hours. So, they’re making good progress.
Buchanan: I don’t have the exact number. They’re not in the commission’s reports. I guess one-third is OK. Prevention is the key ingredient. I’ve had four or five people talk about their neighbor’s parcel, which wasn’t inspected. The perception is inspections are not what they should be. They should be conducted year-round, so there’s no backlog in summer.
Donahoo: It’s important to stay on schedule and get more early inspections done. But every parcel inspected, if early, leaves the false perception that owners are done for the year. I’ve cleared my lot four times already this year. Inspections need to be done before November and they need to be thorough and fair.
Miglin: If you educate the homeowners, there will be fewer problems the following year. There is a delicate balance between telling homeowners to take care of abatement and the fire department educating them.
Spehar: Fire prevention is important. But it competes with equipment, training, maintenance and business inspections. The people in the community are the biggest asset. Once the majority knows the policy they can help police their neighborhood. But we need to prioritize some areas.
Riggi: Yes, the inspections are being done in timely manner. But it depends upon when the firefighters are busy. It’s a great department and good timing for the first 1,000.
Q. In any organization there are any number of personnel who are dead wood, what will you do to evaluate these people and either improve their performance or dismiss them?
Buchanan: Accountability is a big issue. But accountability starts with commissioners. We need to educate ourselves as members, then do regular evaluations of the chief. Accountability goes downhill.
Donahoo: The key is requirements. First ensure physical fitness and then regular training occurs. Hold them to the merits and then the chief is responsible to ensure the staff can meet the standards.
Miglin: There should be a set of written goals and achievements. Hold them accountable for anything, starting with basic training. If they’re not meeting the objectives or requirements, then hold them to the terms.
Spehar: It’s up to the chief to take care of personnel. The commission lets the chief know what they expect.
Riggi: If the fire department is working, there’s a chain of command to achieve these.
Capparelli: The key word is accountability. The commission should deal with the chief; he deals with the captains and they deal with the engineers. But the commission can not micro-manage, that’s why we’ve got a chief.
Q. Have you considered whether or not joining a community services district (CSD) would improve fire services in Idyllwild?
Donahoo: Years ago there was talk of a CSD to bring recreation, fire and water under one umbrella. In this town, I don’t know if CSD would work and I’m not familiar with all of the nuances.
Miglin: No, we’re having a big enough issue just on fire department. To bring water and the other districts wouldn’t help with this tax base.
Spehar: I don’t know much about a CSD. I don’t think it would necessarily be any better and might muddy the waters.
Riggi: The service the fire department provides is greater than an alone ambulance or fire department. People want to see the fire department come out and help.
Capparelli: With a CSD, we would have the same issues. [IFPD] has been doing an excellent job. We have three ambulances. If we were county-managed, we’d only have one engine and one ambulance. The financial issues wouldn’t change, so a CSD is not needed.
Buchanan: I don’t know if a CSD would work. But I think we should look at the fire service and be open to possible changes because. Can we sustain this level of service if our reserves are dropping?
Q. I’m opening Pandora’s box with this question. What are your views or opinions regarding the newly enacted $150 state protection fee?
Miglin: On paper it looks good. But in every community, there are too many nuances to get and have all the money you can get. Many problems with it.
Spehar: I work for the state, so it’s not appropriate to answer.
Riggi: That’s the cost of fire protection. You want top performance and first-rate equipment. $150 monthly is not that much. You see the benefits all around us.
Capparelli: It’s not going to filter down to locals. The will be a lot of bumping around and I don’t know how it will be applied. It may be challenged in courts and I doubt whether it will fly. We don’t know if there is a higher probability of fire service if we pay the money and it goes to the state. But none will filter down to locals.
Buchanan: When I first heard about this, I expected Idyllwild would be exempt. We already have a special district. Like the ambulance costs getting higher, I agree with Pine Cove. Eventually, it will be settled in the courts. We’re not likely to see any money. If they exempt Idyllwild and IFPD gets a percentage, I’d support it.
Donahoo: I’m fundamentally against it. We’re an island in a forest we have a different responsibility if a structure fire starts in a state responsibility area. In the forest, feds respond if we’re paying them. Let [the fee] stay here where we’re paying to use fire protection.
Emmerson: I didn’t support it. You’re in unique situation here.
Q. This question is about public and private partnerships. If costs would no longer allow IFPD to do both fire and ambulance service, which do you believe IFPD should go to CAL FIRE to do — fire or private ambulance — or raise more revenue to keep both?
Spehar: I don’t believe contracting out is the answer. A [combined] fire department and ambulance is the way to go. These guys have your best interest at heart.
Riggi: I believe what Mark Spehar said is valid. We can’t put any service we provide out to contract.
Capparelli: If AMR [American Medical Response, the county’s private ambulance contractor] were stationed here, the cost would be $500,000 to $600,000. If someone were transported off the Hill, where’s the backup? We have three ambulances and always two ready. You won’t get two ambulances for what we pay in taxes. Couple that with money for equipment and Riverside County Fire Department won’t provide the same service.
Buchanan: I like the level of service we have now. But a telling point is the community has to look at how long can we sustain this level of service with the budget we’re running. AMR is not my favorite. But we need to look at costs. Can we keep both ambulance and fire trucks? We need to look at service changes such as not two trucks rolling on every call. Maybe the community decides what we need — then steps up and pays for it.
Donahoo: Each time we put out a [contract request] or get a comparison with CAL FIRE, they don’t come back in line with our costs. We’ve got good guys and don’t need to compromise the level of service.
Miglin: This is an ongoing problem when you have financial issues in the community. This is the best funding we can get. We need more community outreach so the community understands what they’re getting for the money.
Q. What special attribute or talent do you believe you possess that would contribute to the success of the IFPD commission and fire department?
Riggi: The training I received in last four years on the commission makes me a better commissioner. I do know what the community wants and the fire department needs.
Capparelli: When I first came on board, I didn’t know all the problems. I learned quite a bit. I’m a long-term resident so I get a lot of feedback from the community and I bring my business acumen and common sense.
Buchanan: I bring a willingness to listen. Clearly, I don’t have all the answers. Our resources won’t change drastically in the future. We have to look at a different delivery system with the same level of service without compromising the community’s needs. Accountability to the public is the key to my service.
Donhaoo: Twenty-eight years ago, I had no idea how involved I’d be with the community. I have 27 years with the department, 15 years with the Lions Club and four years with the water board. Serving the community is a good thing. I want to be involved with the district and many good friends. I want to keep the service high and I think it can be done; but it will take a lot of hard work.
Miglin: I have 16 years on the Hill, when the average turnover is about four to six years. So I have some stability. I’ve worked with the department and have actually attended commission meetings to be involved. I’m appreciative and understanding of department and what they need.
Spehar: I’ve been in area 30 years and worked with various agencies. I’ve been a paid-call firefighter at IFPD. I’ll bring honesty, integrity and transparency.
The public needs to know what’s going on and [the commission] needs to be more open. I understand as a professional firefighter who I work for. That’s you guys [he said while pointing at the audience].
Q. Have you read the Health and Safety Code pertaining to the powers and duties of a special fire district commissioner? And if so, what have you learned from it?
Buchanan: I’ve read about two-thirds. The commission is clearly in charge of the district and sets the policy steps and operations. The commission is accountable when it hires the chief who recommends actions.
Donahoo: I’ve read a few pages.
Miglin: Some fire code.
Spehar: Not what they have.
Q. There are several questions about Measure G if it passes. 1) Are you for or against Measure G? 2) Will the funds go to salaries or equipment? 3) How much would you raise the current parcel fee from $65?
Capparelli: When I came on board, financials were missing a number of years and we had no accurate audits. A total mess! The right hand didn’t know what his left was doing.
The purpose of Measure G is to manage the budget. We have no reserves. If one engine or ambulance goes out, we’re in great trouble.
I can’t tell you some money won’t go to salaries. But we need station maintenance, equipment, turnouts, equipment for firefighters and we need to build reserves. [The fire] station has so much deferred maintenance. Other agencies have money, we don’t.
I’d like the latitude to go to $130 [per parcel] because there is only so many ways to raise money for the department. Assessed valuations are down. Money to operate the department is going down every year. We need to purse Measure G.
I’m worried about what other commissioners said that we need more money for. But it’s a commission decision if [Measure G] is passed. The money will not be squandered. There are watchdogs on the commission and public watchdogs. We want to be good stewards.
Buchanan: At this time, I’m “No” [on Measure G]. I think [the commission] should have spelled out what they’re giving voters. [Measure G] leaves it up to the commission to go to the maximum. It could be used for other things. I’ve been on three school boards where we told the people what I’m spending money on. Audits are necessary. I’m looking into some confidence about past spending.
The present commission has problems in the 2010 audit just completed. There are nine material problems and seven significant problems. I’m not confident my new money will not be used for the same problems they already faced. They could be back in a few years for more support. If I’m asking for your money, you’ll know exactly where it’s going.
Donahoo: Measure G is controversial. There are plenty of reasons why we need the money and plenty against it, such as you don’t need more funding because you’re not spending it correctly. I’m all for [Measure G] if it goes to capital equipment. I’m against it if it’s for salaries and benefits. Five years ago, there was more than $1 million in reserves. Where it went, I’m not sure. No answers if it was squandered. The commission has to be fiscally responsible. Show public value it gives, but not for salary and benefits now. Let’s build up reserves.
Miglin: The short answer is I’m against Measure G. The reason is it’s not clear. There is no financial assistant, you, in public, can sit down and see whether it’s being spent well or poorly. Until you can prove to the public you’re fiscally responsible, it’s not a good idea to support G because there is no report of past spending.
Spehar: It’s a tough question because I see both sides. Firefighters and the public want the commission to be fiscally responsible. I will vote “Yes” because of the recession. It’s an evil, but probably why we need to get things going in the right direction. But I’d keep it temporarily low as long as possible.
Riggi: I can’t think of more ugly word than “taxes.” It’s a recurring evil. It’s a necessary threat to take care of things. Your choice for ambulance, trust these guys. Measure G and $130 are a must. Measure G is not half-way. When we’ll go to raise fees, it’s because we’re being very transparent with everything we do in fire department.
[At this point, Emmerson asked the audience if they wanted the candidates to deliver a closing statement or answer more questions. The overwhelming response was more questions.]
Q. Fire personnel should have good wages and benefits. Now having said that, just how much can we afford when you consider the size of our tax base and the large number or our residents with fixed incomes? Secondly, if the average cost of a fire station throughout Riverside County is $2.4 million and the annual IFPD budget is $1.7 million, how will you raise revenue to keep the department running?
Capparelli: We have to look at fire as a business. This is the starting point. It’s time to look into everything. Find income, extend leases, the chief cut $30,000. If you want these service levels, there’s only so low you can go. If Measure G passes, we have to wait at least one quarter for the fees. If G passes, it’s worth the $130 annually, only $10 per month. Since the commission hired the new chief, finished a new audit and made up five years of audits with no records, we have the audits all caught up. We’re doing everything we can to right a moving ship; but big ships don’t turn in a day.
Buchanan: I agree we should run [the fire department] as a business and that’s a starting point. In the past, the commission set priorities and should have set money aside when they neglected long-term contracts. Decisions to defer maintenance was a problem, decisions on wages were problems. You can’t just compare one department to next. I don’t care if their size is 10 or 300. What can the community afford? When the budget is frozen three or four years and doesn’t look better, it’s about time to balance budget.
Transparency is the key. We’re not getting stuff much before the commission meetings. It’s not transparency when agenda and packet are published Friday night and there’s no chance to read it and to intelligently discuss the subject. No special meetings are needed and can be called with 72-hour notice. Emergency meetings are still allowed.
How much is the commission going to raise fees and when will they spend it. That should have been in the discussion, I didn’t like leaving thing to others.
Donahoo: Only so much money to work with. We have to live within our means. A lot people are struggling. For years, people didn’t ask questions. Now people are asking and taking notice. The scrutiny has never been higher. We need to keep costs in control. The $2.4 million is cost for all stations, less equipment and less management. Here, we make it with $1.7 million, all fire and ambulance. For $1.7 million, nobody else can do that and we have the capability for our guys to do fire and medical. But we need to live within the budget.
Miglin: As homeowners we live on “x” dollars per month. The [fire] department needs to live within its means. Measure G stopgap. It’s only delaying the inevitable. When that money runs out, they’ll be right back where they are now. But they must be able to go to the public and say, “This is the money we need and the reasons why.” They can’t do that now because the financials don’t back it up.
Spehar: For a rural department, this is one of the best departments for fire, response times and staffing. I’d build up the paid-call and volunteer programs. Costs for new equipment are very expensive, perhaps I’d look at refurbished equipment to save money. Lot of things to look at to help a little district. Volunteer add to our service. We better be thankful for what we have.
Riggi: A lot of people are on fixed income. I choose to work. We are spending their money well. People want to know what they’re getting and I don’t like to raise taxes.
Q. What is your position on remaining local versus being run by Riverside County?
Buchanan: I’m a numbers person. I’d like to see more on paper.
Donahoo:I don’t want to see an outside agency come in. From a personal standpoint, a community this size, everybody gets to know everyone. And our guys know our district. I wish they all lived here and interacted more. But it’s a huge comfort level if you recognize the guys when they come through your door.
Miglin: The short answer is “No.” Except it goes back to the public wanting to know and judge they’re getting the best money for fixed income.
Spehar: It’s not a good idea to make changes without comparison. There are important personnel and financial issues. We’d need to look at what is being spent, too.
Riggi: There’s no comparison to our wages. Compare some documentation out there and consider our size of organization. In the final analysis, you’re not getting any better than what you have now.
Capparelli: I want to keep local control. If only because if you go see [Riverside County Fire] Chief [John] Hawkins in Riverside if you have problem, you can come to our meeting.