Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sacred Cows and Fixing California's Budget Woes Part 2

Even more on the sacred cows in the California Budget ~

 Let's look at CalFire...From the California Legislative Analyst's Office ~

Initially, CalFire’s mission was the prevention and suppression of wildland fires in undeveloped areas. Over time, however, there has been considerable “mission creep” and the department now spends considerable time and resources protecting homes in SRAs from wildfire, as well as responding to medical emergencies and other non-wildfire calls.

   So, CalFire as a part of CDF or the California Department of Forestry, was to manage undeveloped wildland areas. Yeah, times and job descriptions change. Fire Departments across the country now spend on average 6% of their time fighting fires, and most of the balance goes to medical emergency response. CalFire is no different, and I'm sure most of their time goes to "other non-wildfire calls."

Sacred Cow? You bet! Who would ever say they didn't like fire fighters? But does that give CalFire the right to be totally unaccountable to the people of the State of California? I don't think so...

CalFire collects and spends over $2B every year from the Fed's(National Forest coverage and large wildland fire suppression), California counties, and cities it contracts with. Then they still get an additional $2M from the General Fund with a proposed additional $200,000 increase this year, PLUS they now want a SECOND Emergency Fund created. (about $238 million in the 2010-2011 budget year and about $480 million per year thereafter)

A new Emergency Fund(ERI ~ Emergency Response Initiative) created by "taxing" (being called a "fee" by the Governor's office!) every homeowner’s and commercial property owner’s insurance policy 4.8% (this of course will never show on "The Budget"...).This AFTER the state's Legislative Analyst's Office has said there are serious abuses by CalFire of the "old" Emergency Fund (E-Fund), and that the way the governor wants to fund this new "fee" won't fly. It's still there in the proposed Budget months after the LAO said it would have to be changed.

   Abuses by CalFire of the E-Fund  CalFire's day-to-day operations are supposedly financed out of revenues collected from contracted users, and General Fund monies.The E-Fund monies are to be use to cover large wildfire fighting expenses such as overtime, additional staff, and fire fighting costs that are not considered day-to-day. The Legislature has oversight of how CalFire budgets the use of their money thru the General Budget process. First 24hr responses to wildfire incidents are to be considered day-to-day costs; the seasonal Tahoe CalFire station is fully funded from the E-Fund, whether they fight a fire or not. Staffing is considered 3 full-time fire fighters to each engine, per General Budget requirements. CalFire has been "staffing" four fire fighters to an engine, and charging that additional salary to the E-Fund. Half of CalFire's aviation fleet(11 helicopters) is charged to the E-Fund, a DC-10 firefighting plane is fully charged to the E-Fund year-round. Whether they ever are used to fight a fire or not. CalFire also wants an additional $150M to replace all of their helicopters in the next six years.

  While any of these expenses might be justified out of General Fund monies, the problem is there is no Legislative oversight of how and when the Emergency Funds are being spent. The systemic over-use by CalFire policy of the E-Fund makes it unaccountable to the Legislature, and an additional emergency fund with no oversight makes it insane! CalFire is spending funds that the Legislature has no control over and is asking for more.They have no incentive to keep costs down, as there is no effective oversight on how they spend the State's money. CalFire decides how they spend money. This is neither in the State's best interest, nor the way it is supposed to work according to the California Constitution. The Legislature is supposed to control CalFire's spending. As the LAO says ~

Current E-Fund Budgeting Practice at Odds With Original Legislative Intent.

Best answer for THIS sacred cow? Break it up! Give it back to the counties(about half of California's counties use CalFire as their County Fire Department, as they were told it would be cheaper for them to contract it out to CalFire). More local control (or effectively ANY control), and the State would only have to pay each county for coverage of State Responsibility Areas, instead of supporting 6,000 State fire fighters and 56* fire stations(yeah, that’s all there are!) to the tune of over $200B,220M projected for this year alone! Plus whatever Emergency Fund(s) that CalFire is currently wasting. A win for everybody! Less cost to the State, more monies for the Counties. Only one that loses is the State Firefighters Union...(you know, those folks collecting $60 every pay period above and beyond regular dues to do the political PR work to keep CalFire as an unaccountable, untouchable sacred cow)

More to come. There are over 400 State agencies to highlight abuses in...

* 8/12/10 correction there are apparently 205 stations. but you get a different number depending on which gov. page you are on...

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