March 25, 2004 - From the January, 2004 issue

San Diego's Conundrum: How To Pay For Fire Preparedness & Homeland Security Without Raising Taxes?

Last fall's devastating wildfires in San Diego County were exacerbated by poor disaster preparedness and the lack of a coordinated, countywide response. The most glaring weakness in the county's response was the absence of a countywide fire department. In order to find out the politics behind San Diego's arcane fire response system MIR spoke with Professor Steven Erie, Director of Urban Studies and Planning, UC San Diego. In this interview Professor Erie also discusses San Diego's regional governance, airport planning, and his new book, Globalizing L.A.


Steven Erie

Let's begin by asking you to look back at the catastrophic fires of last year that did so much damage in San Diego County. You, as well as many local elected officials, have publicly criticized San Diego's level of fire preparedness. Address the readiness issue, the lessons learned by San Diego, and what the outcomes of this experience will be going forward.

San Diego County is such an innovator in regional airport governance and transportation planning, but it's a real laggard when it comes to fire protection. We've got 28 rural fire districts, many of them horse-and-buggy volunteer agencies, and 16 undermanned city departments in fire protection. We have constantly under-funded public safety. The city of San Diego is 800 firefighters short of the big city average, and that's the best firefighting agency in the county.

The real problem is with the county, in terms of local lack of preparation, and with these rural east county fire districts that were so heavily impacted by the recent fires. San Diego is the only big county in California without a county fire department. The County Supervisors have spent well over $1 billion in Prop. 172 money since 1993 – public safety money to make up for the Prop. 13 takeaway in the early 1990s. Not one cent of it has gone in to fire protection. It's all gone to the Sheriff's Department, district attorneys, and probation. There has been a ten-year effort to consolidate these many rural fire districts, yet nothing has happened.

Efforts by some of the supervisors to get firefighting helicopters for the county came to naught until it was too late. In the county, the greatest responsibility falls on the two back-county supervisors, Bill Horn and Dianne Jacob. Bill led the fight against the fire-fighting helicopters. Dianne Jacob has led the task force on fire agency consolidation and led the battle for Prop. 172 funding for firefighting, but she hasn't accomplished anything over the last ten years. Nothing has happened. Dianne just became the chair of the Board of Supervisors, so this will be the time to look very closely at what happens in terms of back-county fire preparedness.

The other side of the back-county story is the Rural Lands Initiative, aimed at thinning future development in East County, which will be on the March ballot. It will be interesting to see how the fires and the reactions to the fires affect the vote at the polls.

You're right to assert the county has some accountability for the absence of preparation. But you, of all people, certainly know that the counties are a mere agent of the state, and are fiscally dependent on the state. As we do this interview, the governor released a budget in which local government will likely be hit once again. So how capable is the county to fiscally manage their preparedness responsibilities?

Counties are on a short leash-they really are agents of state government. To deal with the problem here in San Diego, you've got to use the T-word. That's the four-letter word down here, new taxes or new fees. The irony is that the people most affected by the fires are the ones least supportive of paying more for what is essentially fire insurance. Voter polls after the fire in San Diego show that it's east county residents, the ones most affected, who are most resistant to paying more in taxes for fire preparedness.

In today's environment, you certainly can't look to Sacramento. What you're dealing with is cuts, you're not dealing with new sources of funds. But the voters – and their unwillingness to pay more – bear a real responsibility down here as well.

How do the demands of homeland security fiscally impinge upon San Diego county and city government's ability to perform its other responsibilities, i.e. first responder duties?

In San Diego, much of the homeland security discussion has been about the border and whether the movement of people and goods will be adversely affected by the new measures. There has been some discussion of homeland security relative to the airport and the port, but not nearly the kind of focus that you have on real global gateways like the ports of LA and Long Beach and LAX. The other part of the homeland security discussion down here revolves around the Navy's presence in San Diego harbor. But again, the discussion has not been nearly as sustained and focused as it's been in places like Los Angeles.

Our readers are aware, thanks to interviews with you, among others, of SANDAG and its responsibilities, and of the merger of transportation responsibilities in Dan Diego County. Give us a status report on the merger.

Let's put it this way, it's a partial merger at best. SANDAG, or as we now call it "SANDAG Plus," has taken over the capital budgets – the construction responsibilities – for the Metropolitan Transportation Development Board and the North County Transit Agency, but not the operational responsibilities. I've heard mixed things about this forced marriage. It's a problem of merging agencies with very different cultures, as we did in Los Angeles 25 years ago with the rail and the bus systems to create the MTA. So, this is still an experiment in the making, and certainly it's an experiment that's really going to be impacted by what's happening with the state budget in terms of substantial cut backs in local transportation funding.

The other interesting thing about the SANDAG story down here is the attempt to decouple Imperial County from SCAG and annex it to SANDAG. The feelers have been out in terms of the reopening of the old desert rail line, the San Diego-Arizona Eastern. Also of note is SANDAG's fight to keep the desert site, the Imperial County site, on the list of potential future airport sites for San Diego. SANDAG is clearly interested in becoming a full-service border planning and transportation agency for San Diego and Imperial Counties.

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Let's segue to San Diego's airport issue. The question is, has San Diego found a site for a new airport?

No. I'm not as optimistic as some of the people who have been interviewed in the Metro Investment Report about our future airport prospects. We now have a governance mechanism to find and plan and develop a new site. But I wouldn't take money to Vegas on any of the seven sites currently under consideration eventually turning into an airport. Four of the seven are still in military hands, and their availability is dependent on the 2005 BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure). The irony is that the San Diego business community is now organized, along with the congressional delegation, to fight BRAC cuts. That is, to fight against the potential of turning a Miramar, a South Camp Pendleton, or a North Island into an airport site. The desert site in Imperial County is incredibly unrealistic. Just look at the whole discussion about Palmdale. The desert site may be an airport, but in fifty years. Airlines serve markets, not airports, and the population just is not there in Imperial County to create a viable market. And then, we've got the east Miramar site, on the other side of I-15 from Miramar Marine Air Base, but you'd have to move more than the amount of earth moved for the Panama Canal to provide a level site there. So, we're still searching for a site, and a lot will depend upon what happens with the 2005 BRAC. But we're a divided community, because many in the community are fighting against any BRAC cuts at all.

Professor, you've just completed a book on Infrastructure in Southern California entitled Globalizing L.A. What's the book's message?

The whole environment for infrastructure mega projects has changed in an unfavorable direction. Globalizing L.A, shows how hard it is, particularly with growing community and environmental resistance and with depleted federal and state revenues, to plan, to build and to finance the infrastructure that turned L.A. into a global city. Developing or even just choosing a site for a new airport has become much more difficult. I think San Diego readers can learn a lot from the battles over the LAX master plan and over El Toro. We're going to have a vote on a new airport site here in San Diego, since it's mandated in the legislation for the regional airport authority. The El Toro fight demonstrated that we may be in for four or five or six votes, depending upon how deep the pockets are of the opponents. The larger point of interest to San Diegans relates to the sheer importance of airports. I've long argued that airports are the Achilles heel not only of LA, but of all of Southern California. San Diego has been given a wake-up call by the difficulties of LAX and El Toro. The region needs to get its act together with regard to airport planning and development, particularly if tourism and high tech are going to continue to be the engines of our global engagement.

We can't close this interview, Professor, without having you comment on water policy -- the Metropolitan Water District, the Colorado/IID arrangement, or L.A.'s Department of Water and Power, which is about to pursue it's first rate increase in ten years. Give us your sense, as a historian on water, what's happening with water policy/politics in Southern California?

Global warming, climate conditions, extended drought in the west – the usual supplies just are not going to be there, particularly on the Colorado River. We've got to continue to press for water markets – for agriculture-to-urban transfers. MWD has been at the center of that debate. Many believe MWD has been more resistant than helpful with respect to water markets and transfers. But certainly, we've got to go full speed ahead with transfers, particularly with respect to the Central Valley.

Met's decision to subsidize local efforts for desalination is the other short term issue facing us on the issue of water supply. Here in San Diego, the panacea of a joint aqueduct with Mexico has pretty much evaporated. People are now looking at developing desalination plants. But the thing with desalination is that you're going to fight a real environmental battle, because you've got to bring massive amounts of power down to the seaside to turn salt water in to tap water. The environmentalists and nearby residents, and they're very strong in places like San Diego, are going to fight those kinds of projects.

What is your take on the current status of that debate over LAX's airport expansion?

My take on the current status of the debate is that it's kind of in a holding pattern. As Hahn looks at ways to build support, for example with the business community, maybe he will agree to change some of the more objectionable aspects, like the remote facility. But at this point, I'm not terribly hopeful that we're going to get much out of this. The Mayor dug in his heals with the original proposal and I'm still waiting to see more concessions from the Mayor's Office to make this more palatable for the airlines, the traveling public and the business community. And the growing corruption scandal involving the mayor's commissioners does not help matters.

Lastly, one of the most important voices in San Diego with respect to border issues and the region and governance was Chuck Nathanson, who headed the San Diego Dialogue and passed away last year. What's that legacy, and how's that void been filled, if at all?

Chuck's shoes are big shoes to fill. As I understand it, there is a discussion among the Executive Committee of San Diego Dialogue to move Dialogue back to its original mission, which was to focus on border infrastructure and development issues, and for Dialogue to perhaps play less of a role with purely San Diego issues, such as K-12 education and smart growth. But, it's hard to find another Chuck Nathanson.

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