Verne Lauritzen, Supervisor Jeff Stone’s chief of staff, speaks to the audience at the Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s Campaign Forum Aug. 6. Lauritzen moderated the evening. In the rear, from left, are the four candidates, Steve Kunkle, Rhonda Andrewson, Nancy Layton and Jeannine Charles-Stigall. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

Except for the facial hair, the differences between the four candidates for the Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission were subtle and often difficult to detect.

At the Aug. 6 forum, candidates Commission President Jeannine Charles-Stigall, Rhonda Andrewson (former administrative assistant), Steve Kunkle (former fire chief from 2005 to 2010) and Nancy Layton (former financial consultant), answered a series of questions from the members of the audience.

Question subjects ranged from the commission’s performance, district’s finances, to ambulance service, to interim Chief Michael Sherman’s tenure, to inspections, grand jury reports and future relations with County Service Area 38 (Pine Cove).

The evening’s discussion began with an opening statement from each candidate. They thanked the audience for coming and provided some biographical background. Andrewson emphasized the importance of participating in these opportunities as well as the commission’s meetings.

“Very important forum for all of us, but I’d like to see a lot more [people] at our board meetings,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to hear your views and for us to be pro-active together.”

One of the first questions to elicit distinguishing answers was what the candidate would change on the commission or in the district if elected. Andrewson, the first responder, said, “We need to tweak [the board] a little. I’d like to see a balanced budget and more forward progress.”

A master plan was Kunkle’s recommendation. “Without a plan, any road gets you there.”

Charles-Stigall wants to focus more on financial issues and the budget if she earns a second term. Layton wants to find the resources to ensure firefighters and emergency medical technicians have “… access to the best equipment we can provide.”

She also wants to encourage more Idyllwild residents to attend the Commission meetings.

Another question asked how the candidate planned to end the persistent property tax advances.

“Emphatically watch the budget for three years, until the numbers roll through,” replied Andrewson, who then made a pledge other candidates endorsed. “2014 is the last time we need the advance of tax revenue.”

Kunkle reminded the audience that during his tenure, he had stopped the practice then. “I understand there’s not enough money to go around now. That’s really unfortunate it had to happen.”

Charles-Stigall also wants to wean the district from relying on this safety net. “By 2014, we should make up that difference with continuing cutbacks,” she explained. “The economy plummeted, but bills didn’t, which ate into our reserves. But there’s a solid foundation to move forward.”

“There are two sides to the issue,” stated Layton. “Build up reserves for lean times and the department lives on fixed income like Social Security. She explained that the revenue payment comes three times each year, but in between, IFPD still has to pay all its bills monthly.

A request to rate the current board’s performance from one to 10 also separated the candidates. Charles-Stigall described the progress since she joined the commission in 2009 as “awesome. We’re in much better shape than before.” Nevertheless, she rated her colleagues as an eight, just because there’s always room for improvement.

Similarly, Layton viewed its performance as a seven with room for education and improvement, but “they’ve shown tremendous progress.”

Andrewson assigned the commission a “strong five. Some things have been accomplished and some need to be accomplished,” she said, then added, “I would like to see us live within budget for a year.”

Kunkle took a different tactic. “I’m not one to point fingers. I was asked to run for the board to move forward,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion. I will keep mine private.”

When asked to evaluate Fire Chief Patrick Reitz, they uniformly supported his performance and approach.

Another question asked the candidates if they would be willing to compare the cost of contracting with Riverside County Fire Department/Cal Fire to the current cost of providing services.

All of them responded that they would be willing to compare the costs, but constituents should remember the value of local control of these services. If RCFD was the provider, the County Board of Supervisors would be where residents would have to turn for help.

“Most people know I have been for local control,” Kunkle, who answered this question first, said. “It’s not what the board wants, but what the citizens want. I would always look for options that could do it the same or better.”

“While the numbers would be important, the intangibles would weigh heavily,” Layton said. “For example, could RCFD provide the same quality of service as IFPD does?”

She also stressed that “you wouldn’t be electing the commissioners, you’d have to go through supervisors.”

Andrewson pointed out that a study has already been completed reporting that the county’s cost would be $2.3 million annually compared to IFPD’s current budget of $1.8 million.

“Medical responses are 85 percent of the IFPD business,” Charles-Stigall said. “Cal Fire would have the same response time in town.”

When asked whether the commission should consider using a private provider for medical response incidents, they uniformly replied no.

In response to a question about whether all commercial properties should be inspected, the candidates unanimously concurred. But they also stressed that vegetative property abatement was the more important issue for the community.

The final question was how the candidate would improve relations with CSA 38.

“We should have better relations with CSA 38. It shouldn’t take a fire or other incident,” responded Andrewson. “We all live in the community, all have same desire to see the community grow and be safe. CSA 38 is an integral part of this community.”

Kunkle also felt the two agencies should be working together and Charles-Stigall concurred that “… anything to repair or improve relations would be a bonus.”

Each candidate thanked the audience for coming and their questions, and encouraged more teamwork going forward.

Forum questions not asked:

About 35 people attended the Aug. 6 election forum for the four Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission candidates — Rhonda Andrewson, Jeannine Charles-Stigall, Steve Kunkle and Nancy Layton. During the 90-minute session, moderator Verne Lauritzen, chief of staff for Supervisor Jeff Stone, posed many questions to the four candidates.

But just as many were not asked because of the time constraints.

Below is a sampling of the unasked questions:

  • Why does IFPD need a [certified public accountant] to do their [financial] books since the three water districts don’t have one?
  • If the budget was in surplus, what would be your priority investment? In other words, if the budget allowed, what do you see as the highest need?
  • As a shareholder of the IFPD, I feel that solvency is key in solving the district’s issues. My definition of solvency would be when all debts are eliminated and the district has a minimum $500,000 in reserve. At what point or milestone would you feel that the district is solvent? What would be your plan to gain solvency?
  • What are the plans for IFPD to work with other agencies, as shown by the recent Mountain Fire, i.e., training and adding a position for a member of CSA 38 to sit (as a non-voting) member of the commission?
  • For Charles-Stigall, how did the massive health care and salary overpayments occur?
  • For Layton, what would you do to prevent disclosure of private Medicare and financial information as has happened in the past?

There were several for Kunkle:

  • You neglected to do audits for five years. What would qualify you now to be a commission member?
  • Many of the financial problems of IFPD started on your watch. If elected, how would you handle getting the finances back on track?
  • Have you completed any type of ethics training or Brown Act training?