Should Arcata Fire turn it all over to CalFire?

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE/ARCATA – The Arcata Fire District Board of Directors is united in its support of a tax measure on the November ballot, but is divided on whether to investigate contracting with CalFire to provide firefighter services for the district.

The board held an unusually contentious meeting June  9, during which it voted 4-0, with Director Elena David absent, to place the same tax measure that narrowly failed in March on the Nov. 3 ballot.

But when it came to discussing the idea of contracting with CalFire – and having the district’s firefighters become employees of the State of California – there was an effort to scrub the item from the agenda.

The meeting began with the almost-always uneventful “approval of agenda.”

Director David Rosen asked that agenda item 9.1, “Consider Request for Proposal, Cal Fire Contract,” be removed from the agenda.

“I think it’s inappropriate to present it tonight,” said Rosen, who then made a motion to remove the item. “I think it’s poorly presented.”

Director Randy Mendosa seconded the motion.

During public comments, Fire Capt. Luke Walker urged the directors to allow him to make a presentation on the proposal, “rather than railroad the process.”

Rosen and Mendosa voted in favor of the motion, while Board President Nicole Johnson and Director Rene Campbell opposed the motion. The tie vote meant the motion failed and the board would hear the CalFire proposal.

Having CalFire take over

Fire Capt. Walker told the board that he was dismayed that he had to fight to make a presentation on the proposal. He said firefighters have pushed to have the CalFire proposal brought before the board several times in the past, but to no avail.

 Walker said that members of Arcata Professional Firefighters Local 4981, the union that represents local firefighters,  voted unanimously in favor of exploring the idea of having CalFire take over.

“Every single person in the union feels this is the way to go,” Walker said.

Under the proposal, the district would develop an agreement with CalFire to provide services. The Arcata Fire District would still exist as a government entity and collect tax revenues, but that money would be redirected to CalFire, which would hire and oversee the local firefighters.

CalFire would essentially become the fire department for Arcata, McKinleyville, Bayside, Manila and Jacoby Creek.

“We are in a crisis, a financial crisis,” Walker told the board. 

To balance its budget, the district has left positions unfilled and is now closing one of its three stations on a rotating basis. The staffing shortage will continue unless two thirds of voters approve a property tax measure on Nov. 3.

“We currently have a decreased level of safety,” Walker said.

Uncertainty over tax measure

Walker said he wants the tax measure to pass in November, but he and his fellow firefighters are concerned about whether it will be successful.

“The Local is also concerned that passing a funding measure in November 2020 will be difficult. The feedback we have gotten from our experts is that a November 2020 election will be more challenging than March 2020 was,” said Walker, reading from a report prepared by Firefighter Anthony Benelisha. “The Local is doing everything possible to forecast what a November 2020 campaign will look like. However the expert advice that we have gotten is that no one knows what to expect with the state of the economy and the circumstances that a campaign will be run under.”

“I want to have a Plan B,” Walker told directors.

The first step, Walker said, would be to submit a request for proposal (RFP) to CalFire. This would begin a lengthy process, perhaps 18 months. CalFire would present the district with several options, and then the two entities would negotiate a deal. The arrangement would need to be reviewed by the Humboldt Local Agency Formation Commission.

“It doesn’t commit us to anything. It doesn’t cost us anything,” Walker said.

Later in the meeting, Walker confirmed that firefighters want to pursue the CalFire arrangement whether the tax measure passes or not. 

In attendance at the virtual Zoom meeting was CalFire Humboldt-Del Norte Unit Chief Kurt McCray, who is a McKinleyville resident.

McCray told directors that if they want to pursue the arrangement, they would need to inform CalFire as to what level of service it wants.

“We need to understand what you’re looking for,” McCray said. He also said that if the district wants to pursue this option, it needs to “come with true intent.”

If CalFire were to take over coverage of the district, McCray said there would be three firefighters on each engine, not two like Arcata Fire currently has.

“It just takes one incident to sober us up to 2.0 staffing,” McCray said.

‘Confusing at this time’

Director Mendosa said he had talked to members of the union and asked them to pull the CalFire proposal from the agenda.

For the past two years, Mendosa said, the district has been planning on how to bolster its budget and keep three stations open. The result is the ballot measure.

“I have to disagree with them for bringing this item up at this time,” Mendosa said. “It’s confusing at this time.”

Mendosa said the district should wait until after the November election before discussing this issue.

Chief Justin McDonald said that the CalFire process would take at least 18 months. He suggested that the district form a working committee to identify the level of service that is wanted and “get the ball rolling.”

If the district is asking for a request for proposal from CalFire, it should also ask for one from Humboldt Bay Fire in Eureka, McDonald suggested.

Director Campbell said she wanted to look at all options.

“If it’s about public safety, we need to have all the cards on the table, whether we pick them up or not,” said Campbell, who moved to table the matter until the next meeting. Director Johnson seconded the motion.

When it came time to vote, directors were once again divided, with Campbell and Johnson voting in favor of tabling the matter, and Mendosa and Rosen voting no. The motion failed.

“I think we’ve dealt with this and I’m ready to move on,” Rosen said.

Campbell tried to make a second motion, suggesting that the district do it’s due diligence and explore other options, including CalFire and Humboldt Bay Fire.

“Point of order, but I think this motion shopping is getting out of control,” Rosen said.

Mendosa said he is not against looking at other options, but he wants the district to focus on the upcoming ballot measure.

“If it fails, then let’s have this discussion then,” Mendosa said. “I’m ready to work on what we’re supposed to be working on.”

The proposed tax measure, if approved by two-thirds of voters, would raise property taxes for a single-family home by $118.