November 30, 2007

Commentary:

California’s Under Funded Infrastructure: Feinstein Urges San Diego to Increase Funding of Fire Services

By Susan Duerksen, MPH

US Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a hearing today that San Diego has failed to adequately fund fire services, and that the under-funding contributed to the devastation of the wildfires that hit the region five weeks ago.

“I deeply believe that San Diego has to increase the size of its fire services,” Feinstein said. “People want government to respond, to keep people safe.”

Feinstein’s comments, at a U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee meeting held in San Diego, echoed repeated statements and research findings from the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), our progressive think tank in San Diego.

Feinstein said the City of San Diego has under-funded firefighting resources for years, while San Diego County is one of few without a unified countywide firefighting department. She noted that San Diego should have 22 additional fire stations and up to 800 more firefighters to meet the standards set by the national fire service accrediting agency.

Because of the lack of resources, Feinstein said, San Diego is able to respond to emergencies within five minutes only 47% of the time, half the rate required to meet national standards.

In a 2005 report, The Bottom Line, CPI revealed that San Diego’s shortage of fire stations and personnel, documenting that the city had the fewest firefighters per 1000 residents of any large California city.

Since last month’s firestorm, CPI has urged local officials and voters to reconsider the consequences and costs of refusing to pay upfront for adequate levels of infrastructure and services such as fire protection.

CPI President Donald Cohen said in a statement October 26, “Although this is a region with extreme natural fire hazards, anti-tax politics have led to an undersupply of fire stations, equipment and personnel to adequately fight fires.” In a commentary in The Nation, he argued that San Diego’s lack of preparedness is an example of chronic under-funding of vital government services across the nation. He wrote: “Even tax-averse San Diego voters may soon recognize that there’s no free lunch; we must take as good care of our common public needs as we do of our own homes.”

Testifying at the Senate hearing today, San Diego City Council President Scott Peters told Feinstein the city “has strained to bring resources to fire protection” by proposing tax increases for that purpose, but has been hamstrung by the requirement under California’s infamous Proposition 13 that tax increases require voter approval by a two-thirds margin.

Feinstein urged the city to consider issuing bonds to pay for increased fire protection.

US Rep. Bob Filner said Feinstein’s statement contained “some very realistic comments about San Diego. I think we needed someone from outside to say those things.”

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations, chaired by Feinstein, convened the meeting at San Diego’s City Hall today to consider policy and budget issues raised by the catastrophic Southern California wildfires of last month.

This issue is of great significance, not only for San Diego but also for many other cities and the state of California, as we look at the level of funding for essential services and infrastructure. Here in San Diego, the problem of revenue deficiency is pervasive and systemic, and affects many other public services in addition to fire protection.

Susan Duerksen is the communications director of the Center on Policy Initiatives(CPI), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization located in San Diego, and funded by private foundations and individual donations. A journalism graduate of Indiana University, Duerksen was a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune for 17 years.

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