City of San Diego aiming for November 2016 bond to build new fire stations

The city of San Diego is hoping to build support for a $205 million general obligation bond on the November 2016 ballot to help fund a citywide shortfall on fire stations. If approved, the bond would assist in building 17 fire stations to shore up gaps in emergency services.

One such gap is in Torrey Hills, and at its Oct. 20 meeting, the Torrey Hills Community Planning Board joined 10 other community planning groups in support of the bond effort.

San Diego City Council President Pro-tem Marti Emerald is leading efforts for the bond and attended the Oct. 20 meeting, along with San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Javier Mainar, City Council President Sherri Lightner and other members of city staff.

Lightner said there has been a need for a fire station in Torrey Hills since she took office in 2008.

“I wholeheartedly support the plan for a bond measure to build the remaining fire stations we need,” she said. “We simply cannot continue to do without these improvements to our fire safety infrastructure.”

As Mainar said, 80 percent of what the fire department does is medical emergency services-related. Response times can reach 12 to 15 minutes when the goal is to get there in fewer than seven minutes. In an emergency such as a cardiac event, that extra time significantly drops the chances of survival.

“It’s hugely important to create a better web of fire stations,” Emerald said.

In 2011, the San Diego City Council adopted the findings and recommendations in Citygate Report, a study of fire service standards and response coverage. As a result of the findings, the council established a five-year implementation plan to design and construct 19 fire stations. The plan was stalled by the recession, but the city is now ready to move forward with the support of voters.

As Emerald said, the economy is improving and the city is trying to play catch-up on replacing a lot of the crumbling infrastructure.

Chris Olson, from the city’s office of the independent budget analyst, said the city’s “backlog” includes street and sidewalk repairs, stormwater system repairs, municipal building improvements, park improvements and affordable housing.

“The bill is quite large — $5 billion to do all the repairs to the city infrastructure that has been neglected — and that doesn’t include fire stations,” Emerald said.

Two of the 19 recommended stations have been fully funded by community developer fees: proposed stations at Judicial and Nobel in the University area, and at Carmel Valley and Winecreek Road in the Black Mountain Ranch area.

The average fire station comes with a $12 million price tag. Each new station would be staffed with 12 full-time firefighters, with annual operating costs of $2.2 million.

Alan Arrollado, a San Diego firefighter for 27 years, said the city has seen tremendous growth. The growth is good for the vibrance of the city, but as a firefighter, Arrollado said he sees that growth only as risk.

Arrollado said San Diego is the eighth largest city in the country, and there are major metropolitan risks here: Fire season is year-round, and there are 900 miles of canyon-rim homes and 330 miles of coverage with more than 1 million residents to protect. Call volumes have grown so much in the past 10 to 15 years that the department is having trouble meeting all of the city’s needs, he said.

Difficulties exist responding to calls from Station 41 in Sorrento Valley, fighting UTC and Mira Mesa traffic; the Station 35 truck from UTC gets stuck reaching Torrey Hills from Interstate 5; and Station 24 has challenges reaching the area on busy Del Mar Heights Road.

“It presents problems not just here, but all over the city,” Arrollado said. “Seconds are property and lives lost. The risks are real here.”

“We cannot continue to operate with this kind of deficit and expect our communities will remain safe,” Emerald said.

Olson said the city’s independent budget analyst office looked at a variety of options for financing the fire stations, including a quarter-cent sales tax, which would raise $68 million a year; and the repeal of the People’s Ordinance, which subsidizes trash collection in the city and would collect $32 million a year.

All scenarios, including the GO bond, require two-thirds voter approval. The bond would ensure that a large amount of money would be available for the city to spend.

The bond would show up on residents’ property tax bills. The average property in San Diego is $470,000, which would amount to $25 a year for the average homeowner, or $5 for every $100,000 in assessed value.

City Engineer James Nagelvoort said the city is also studying ways to streamline how the infrastructure is delivered. The city is considering the delivery method of “Design-Build,” in which a single contract with a contractor can implement the project, significantly reducing the overall project timeline and providing cost savings by avoiding multiple procurement, design and construction processes.

The MACC process (Multiple Award Construction Contracts) further shortens the timeline by employing a short list of prequalified design-build teams to bid on and implement projects. In 2014, the city successfully used the MACC process for the design and construction of some large water, sewer and stormwater drainage pipeline projects.

Nagelvoort said the city is also working with the fire department to standardize fire facilities.

“We’ve been treating them like custom homes,” he said. “That doesn’t always equate into efficiency and cost savings.”

The goal, as Emerald said, is to fast-track the design and construction process, getting the stations built and staffed to ensure that safety needs are being met in all communities.

Chair Kathryn Burton noted that the city might run into a problem with available land, especially in Torrey Hills. The minimum lot size needed for the typical fire station is .79 acres.

Mainar and Emerald acknowledged that finding land is a challenge. Sometimes they have to move forward with parcels that are smaller than they would like, and they have to go vertical. Emerald said the city’s real estate assets department has been involved since last summer looking to identify available properties.

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