Fire Chief Augie Ghio wants those residents who live within the agency's boundaries to know one thing: The district is not shutting down.
Yes, it’s true that the district is facing a $1.3 million budget deficit, its third such deficit of more than $1 million. And yes, it’s true that they have sent out a Request for Proposal (RFP) about the possibility of outsourcing some components of its mission to another entity. But Ghio, 31-year-veteran of the fire service, is seeking to dispel misinformation and rumors that he has seen and heard.
“The board has already done everything they can, labor has done a lot in terms of rolling back benefits and other compensations. We’ve cut a lot of positions, we’ve cut a lot of non-personnel expenses, and we are still facing a giant deficit,” Ghio said to a group of community members last week in Spring Valley.
Regarding the RFP (see the attached PDF), Ghio said that the intent is to seek out as much information as possible from other fire agencies (he mentioned CalFire specifically) to find out if any of them are in a position to bid for outsourcing one or more elements of service from San Miguel. Those services include, but are not limited to, fire prevention, fire operations and direct service delivery.
U-T San Diego recently published a story on the release of the RFP, and broke down some of the district’s recent financial decisions that have put it in crisis mode, including:
- A contract to provide fire service to Lemon Grove, which is now ceased. However, the district has to pick up the tab on lifetime benefits for five firefighters in Lemon Grove, costing nearly $70,000 per year.
- Legal fees costing nearly $80,000 accrued from having a law firm present in the most recent round of labor negotiations, and at board meetings.
Ghio said that the purpose of the RFP being sent out is three-fold:
“One, and most importantly, to do what’s in the best interest of the community served. This is not about my wages or firefighter wages. Two, we want to make sure we have a viable district into the future, because if we go broke, we’re not around to provide service to the community. And three, to provide for safety and fairness of our employees,” he said. “But you can be assured that whatever decision is made after the responses from the RFP come back, it will be in (customers’) best interest.”
The proposals are due back to the District by March 9.
Mount Helix Patch caught up with Ghio after he spoke, and tried to dive a little further into the situation.
Mount Helix Patch: You mentioned trying to dispel some misinformation that was out there, what kind of misinformation have you seen or heard?
Augie Ghio: There’s information out there that we’re deconstructing the fire district, and that’s not true. What the board of directors and my administration is trying to do is figure out if there’s a better way to do business. We get stuck in the same mode of operations and continue down a pretty slippery slope as we learn that that mode is not the most efficient way to operate. Or do we reach out to other agencies and say, “Hey, is there another way to do this?” It’s not deconstructing, or getting rid or leveraging against labor or anything like that, this is strictly trying to gather, from a feasibility standpoint, all the alternatives.
MHP: Obviously the property taxes have been on the decline in the last few years. Aside from doing more of the same things you’ve done in terms of cuts, what are some of the realistic options you have to try to close this budget gap?
Ghio: We’ve been working with our labor groups and seeing what we have to do in order to restructure some of the labor contracts to not run into any great deficit. That’s worked out pretty well so far. We’ve looked at what we are doing with our purchasing, in some of our contracts – everything from landscaping to providers of subservices, and everything from toilet paper to our fire apparatus – and rebidding every possible contract every two years to get the best price possible. We’ve saved several thousand dollars from doing that.
We've tried a couple of new revenue sources that didn’t really work out. A cut-down version of a cost recovery ordinance – marginally bringing in a few thousand dollars a year. Charging for our business inspections annually. We’ve seen compliance go up with those, but it still only brings in marginal revenue.
Now we are looking at are there other service alternatives. Are there other ways of doing the core business that we do? It’s not embraced by everybody, but it’s a necessary feasibility review.
MHP: The RFP pretty explicitly states that it’s contingent that the staff is retained – either they are absorbed into a new agency or you stay intact and continue to work on some of these other services, but if there are no staff cuts, how do you foresee…
Ghio (cuts off question): Well, there are staff cuts. There’s one proposal where you don’t need a fire chief. And depending on how somebody bids and what they bid, you may not need a training chief, you may not need a fire marshal. You may still need inspectors, but you may be able to share the position of fire marshal. We really have to see how the bids come in and what staff come and go but for sure, you don’t need a fire chief. I would literally be working myself out of a job.
MHP: You also mentioned SRA fees ( that will be enacted on some San Diego County residents). If CalFire were to take over, what percentage of customers would be subject to that fee?
Ghio: About 10,000 customers throughout our district, mostly in the more rural unincorporated areas like Crest and Jamul.
MHP: How would you personally describe the financial state of the district now? Would “insolvency” be a word that could be used?
Ghio: No, not insolvency, because whether we have to do other dramatic reductions in pay and compensation for all of our employees, including myself, or whether we have to do other service reductions or a combination of both, we can remain solvent. But that’s not really the question. The question is how to we maintain a strong level of service to the community in the most cost effective manner possible. We are in a severe budget deficit. We will fix it.
The easy way to fix it is to close a fire station, which I do not advocate. Another easy way to fix it is to brown out a fire station and rotate it between all eight fire stations. But what happens to that mother, son, father, daughter that has the heart attack, or chokes on something? And the response time increases when you could have kept that fire station open with some level of medical response. I don’t advocate that either.
MHP: People see the term RFP and sometimes their mind goes to “this place is shutting down, assets are being sold off,” whatever. What is your sense of how San Miguel Fire District will exist moving forward? Is it still going to be an entity that people can recognize?
Ghio: Even if, financially and servicewise, it looks viable to outsource some component of our service, the San Miguel Fire District would still be a viable entity. The board would still be in place. A certain amount of staff would still be in place in order to drive the machine. We would still be branded as San Miguel Fire District. For the customer, to be honest with you, it would be a seamless transition, and in going to a lot of community meetings, I’ve found that a lot of people don’t really care what the patch on the shoulder says or the color of the fire apparatus. What they want to know is when I call 9-1-1, am I gonna get EMS service as rapidly as I’m getting it now, or better than I’m getting it now? Whatever the board decides to do, it will be in the best interest of service to the customer.
MHP: Hypothetically, let’s say you get all of the bids, go through the process, do all the evaluations, and the board decides, you know what, we (San Miguel) are doing the best job we can do. Where do you go from there?
Ghio: Then you go back to the table with labor. The board has to look at the organization and talk about the possibility of cutting more positions. How much more do we want to negotiate with labor for additional givebacks? We look at other service delivery options, and then make an informed decision on that. My personal opinion is we should not do any more service delivery cuts to the communities. We’ve done enough eliminating and downsizing fire engines.
Information about the RFP, the district's budget, the general fund, a Q&A and more can be downloaded from the district’s website.