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June 28, 2022

Supervisor backs city tax extension for fire; demanded removal of Calfire chiefs

The county supervisor leading the charge to end a long-held relationship with Calfire and contract with Hollister for fire services is making the case for a new, countywide tax district that would fund a broader agency.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho also defended his position against Calfire, acknowledged concerns over Hollister’s financial future and threw his support behind the city’s proposed Measure T sales-tax extension headed to the ballot.

Botelho has found himself in a political quagmire following the county board’s move toward negotiating with Hollister for fire services and departing a nearly 60-year arrangement with Calfire, which runs the Fairview Road station.

Calfire and Hollister recently estimated the services would cost slightly more than $1 million, while supervisors voted 3-2 last week to start talks with the city.

Botelho was among the supervisors supporting the change. Robert Rivas and Jaime De La Cruz were the others, while Supervisors Margie Barrios and Jerry Muenzer dissented.

The city and county each face similar fiscal declines. But Hollister’s is more severe and – to prevent draining the last of the general fund reserves by next year, or make severe cuts to an already depleted workforce – the city is expected to request that voters extend the Measure T sales tax, approved in November 2007, for another five or 10 years.

Despite Hollister’s murky finances, Botelho and others supported talks on a fire contract. Botelho in recent months has often criticized Calfire for its tense relationship with the San Juan volunteer fire department – where the supervisor who represents the Mission City once acted as chief – in leading up to the change. Now, he wants to make it clear his decision was centered on broader issues.

“It’s really, really important people realize this is not just about San Juan,” Botelho said.

Particularly, Botelho, who faces a reelection bid against former San Juan Councilman Arturo Medina on the June ballot, broached problems such as:

– His contention Calfire was unwilling to build a station in the Mission City and instead wanted to place it near the Rancho Larios development about two miles from downtown San Juan.

– The state agency was unwilling to extend the contract for a year, as Supervisor Margie Barrios suggested, to allow Hollister voters to decide on the Measure T sales-tax extension, and give both governments a better idea how finances may work out in the coming years.

– While the state has questions over the San Juan department’s level of training, Botelho contended Calfire has been hesitant to share its own firefighters’ training records for emergency medical services.

– Botelho said during the course of recent talks with Calfire, he realized there had to be a “change of personalities in the room” on Calfire’s end – and clarified one of his deal breakers was his request to have area unit chiefs dismissed or rotated elsewhere.

“In order to make the Amador Plan work, we had to try to change personalities in the room,” Botelho said.

At the core of the debate about coverage, Calfire has broached the so-called Amador Plan that would include varying resources in certain months, with additional firefighters rotating to county coverage in the winter.

County officials had requested bids from Hollister and Calfire. Hollister estimated its contract cost at $1.07 million, versus $1.122 million for the lowest of three “models” provided by Calfire.

The current contract cost is $1.2 million. The state agency announced in October that a deadline had passed to negotiate a deal beyond June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Calfire Chief Rick Hutchinson, who oversees the Monterey-San Benito units, denied Botelho’s claims about Calfire’s unwillingness to build a station in San Juan, extend the current deal for one year, or share EMS training records for its workers.

He did, however, confirm that Botelho in a meeting a month ago with the county’s fire subcommittee, on which Botelho sits, asked that two unit chiefs, Paul Avala and Phil Madison, be reassigned.

“What I see in that request of his is to get someone out of the way to get someone else he could possibly manipulate,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson called Botelho’s claims regarding lacking willingness on a fire station in San Juan and the talk about extending the Calfire deal for one year “very incorrect” and “incorrect as well,” respectively.

Hutchinson explained that Calfire at one point recommended a Mission City location as the “most cost efficient” and that a current station there could be renovated for overnight stays. He said Calfire also offered temporary use of its Aromas station until one could be built or renovated in San Juan. As for the one-year extension, Hutchinson recalled Supervisor Margie Barrios, who advocated for the 12-month deal, asking him in a recent board meeting if that would suffice.

Hutchinson recalled saying “yes” with two caveats – giving Calfire authority for code enforcement, an issue that “reared its ugly head” in the case of the 2010 Eagle Recycling plant fire, and verification on levels of training for the San Juan volunteer firefighters. He said the volunteer training could cause liability issues for the state, county and San Juan.

“I have the ability as the unit chief to extend it up to a year,” he said.

Hutchinson countered Botelho’s criticism over Calfire’s EMS records by noting that the supervisor brought it up about four weeks ago. Hutchinson said all the information is available on the state’s EMS website – and that the firefighers are certified statewide, and having them all registered in every relevant county would be inefficient.

He said Calfire last October “put the county on notice” about an extension because “we couldn’t continue kicking this down the road any further.”

Botelho said he is confident in the direction toward consolidating with Hollister. The level of countywide recourses, as Botelho realizes, might depend on the fate of the Hollister tax extension in November. City officials have broached – without the ballot approval, leaving a more than $3 million annual shortfall – laying off seven firefighters and closing Fire Station No. 2 on Union Road.

If that occurred, it could leave the downtown station and volunteer facilities in San Juan as the only coverage locations, while county and city leaders have discussed possibly building a station on Hollister’s west side at some point. City and county leaders have not reached that point in negotiations, but Botelho believes even in a “worst-case scenario,” a rejection from Hollister voters, the services still would be better than under Calfire. He called it an “opportunity to bring the two cities together” and said he doesn’t see it as “subsidizing Hollister firefighting.”

While Botelho said he would like to eventually see a new countywide fire district overseen by a joint powers authority – with representatives from the two cities and county, and the government entities supplying financial injections to complement any new taxes – he also publicly supported the Measure T extension that could affect, indirectly or not, the county’s fire coverage.

“Personally, I would say yes,” Botelho said of supporting Measure T, while adding he would “probably” campaign for it. “I would like to see Measure T pass.”

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