LOS ALTOS HILLS (CBS SF) -- The Los Altos Hills County Fire District was spared from consolidating into the Santa Clara County Fire Department at a Tuesday meeting of the county Board of Supervisors despite pleas from firefighters and a compromising audit.
Supervisors chose not to consolidate the independent fire district into the county after a five-hour discussion Tuesday.
Instead, the decision was defaulted to the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, which conducts comprehensive reviews on county departments every few years.
The audit and county staff recommended consolidation after a recent audit of the fire district revealed misuse of funds, negligence of high fire-risk areas and violations of open meeting laws.
Adam Cosner, president of Santa Clara County Fire Fighters Union Local 1165, said consolidation would be a "foothold" for creating a regional, county-wide approach to fire.
"Fires don't know boundaries," Cosner said. "It's critical that resources are shared so that we can safeguard the entire county."
Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden said that consolidation is "a matter of public policy" and nothing new to the county. At one point there were 12 independent fire districts before the county established its regional one.
Bowden also said that the Los Altos Hills County Fire District has also contracted with the county department for almost 25 years, which is why consolidation would be beneficial.
"As an original member of the Los Altos Fire Department, I personally have seen the level of service to our citizens increase dramatically over the years though this partnership," Bowden said.
"Throughout our history we have supported regional solutions within the fire service to increase efficiency and provide the highest service to our residents."
But consolidation was met with significant backlash from Los Altos Hills residents as well as its fire district board and its City Council, which both voted against consolidation.
Nearly 125 Los Altos Hills residents participated in the discussion Tuesday, fearful that consolidation would cut local programs and that tax dollars be used in other parts of the county.
Dave Stewart, the town's Community Emergency Response Team supervisor, said the county would need to get approval from fire district residents before consolidating -- pointing to a 2016 services agreement between Los Altos Hills, its fire district and the county.
"This Board of Supervisors unanimously recognized that to protect a special tax voted upon themselves by the residents of the fire district, that it would be essential for the fire district not to be reorganized for consolidation or annexed, and if a reorganizing was proposed it would be submitted to the voters of the fire district," Stewart said. "Drastic changes without proper planning, I feel, shows a reckless disregard for the citizens of the district."
Ava Chan, a resident of Los Altos Hills for more than 20 years, said that the town and its hillside requires a local approach only achieved from an independent fire district.
"The typography and vegetation in our town is very different from other cities within the county. Fire emergency mitigation efforts need local knowledge and support," Chan said.
The Los Altos Hills County Fire District commissioners also wrote a letter in opposition.
"All recommendations in the audit report are achieved except for the suspension of the delegation of authority," Mark Warren, president of the fire district board, wrote. "This final recommendation is no longer necessary to achieve the recommendations of the audit."
However, Cosner and other county firefighters said consolidation would help get more equipment and staff on the ground -- something gravely needed as larger, and more complex wildfires threaten the Bay Area.
"Firefighters are asked to do more with less every day in the state of California. Every time I go to a wildland fire in California it is the biggest one we have ever had," Cosner said.
A 2019 report by the county said that mutual aid would be harder to get and harder to give in the coming years, requiring the county to acquire equipment like dozers or herbicides for fire mitigation.
"Current budgetary deficits [means] there is no general fund available to support this program," Bowden said. "Board approval for the reallocation of services is critical to begin staffing and funding the work plan."
After three hours of public comment and two hours of contentious debate between county leaders, the board agreed 4-1 to have LAFCO explore various fire protection options, including consolidation.
Supervisor Dave Cortese was the dissenting vote, as he preferred consolidation.
A proposed timeline for review is set to come back to county supervisors by November.
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