Supervisor: Is Cal Fire burning taxpayers?

An investigation was launched recently to determine whether San Mateo County residents’ tax dollars were used to fund battles against recent catastrophes in parts of California outside the county borders, including last month’s wildfires.

As San Mateo County faces a $2 million-plus fire department deficit, Supervisor Jerry Hill — with the blessing of Finance Committee members Supervisors Mark Church and Rich Gordon — called for the investigation to verify whether the county is receiving what it pays for.

Cal Fire provides fire services to unincorporated areas of the county. There are eight Cal Fire engines, five funded by the county and three subsidized by the state. The county has sent numerous Cal Fire strike teams to respond to fires in the South Bay and in Northern California during the last few months and has three teams battling the Telegraph fire near Yosemite.

Hill said he began to wonder whether Cal Fire was using its San Mateo County resources throughout the state at the expense of local taxpayers.

In addition to a potential loss of taxpayer money, Hill said he wanted to know whether local emergency services are disrupted when firefighters respond outside the Peninsula, and whether the county’s payments to Cal Fire drop accordingly when that happens.

“These are questions that come to mind, and without any real answers,” Hill said.

The timing of the audit is no coincidence. The county still needs $915,000 more to operate fire services next year plus more money to replace vehicles and three stations, bringing the total funds needed well past $2 million, deputy County Manager Reyna Farrales said.

John Ferreira, chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit, said he was looking forward to the audit. He said he was confident the county has not been overcharged.

Ferreira said sometimes county fire employees do perform services in other parts of the state, but that Cal Fire also makes use of personnel from outside of the Peninsula on occasion.

“So we think it all balances, and this audit, I hope, will prove that,” he said.

When the county-funded engines spend time working in other parts of the state, the California Office of Emergency Services is supposed to fully reimburse the county, Ferreira said.

The audit should not take more than six to eight weeks, with officials devising their plan of attack to obtain the information, deputy county Controller Kanchan Charan said. In his 15 years on the job, Charan said he could not remember another investigation into Cal Fire services of this sort.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

By the numbers

$2 million-plus: County’s total fire deficit next year

$910,000: Extra money needed next year for fire operations

5: Cal Fire stations in county

5: County-funded engines in San Mateo County

3: State-funded engines in San Mateo County

60: County-funded Cal Fire employees

Source: San Mateo County, Cal Fire

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