In advance of a Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting next week that could determine the fate of the Los Altos Hills County Fire District, both supporters and critics of the district are mobilizing to influence supervisors’ votes.
Visitors to the town of Los Altos Hills website in recent days have been presented with a pop-up ad urging residents to virtually tune into the Board of Supervisors Zoom meeting Tuesday and make comments on two proposals supervisors are expected to consider: suspension of the district’s authority and consolidation of the district and others in the county with the Santa Clara County Fire Department, also known as the Central Fire Protection District. A recent audit of the Los Altos Hills County Fire District recommended the former action and another audit, for the South Santa Clara County Fire District, suggested the latter as a way to share financial resources to support that district and others that have struggled during recent fire seasons.
The losaltoshills.ca.gov pop-up seeks “volunteers” from anyone living within Los Altos Hills and the unincorporated areas known as Loyola, Los Trancos and San Antonio Hills, which are all served by the Los Altos Hills County Fire District.
“Residents, this is your Fire District that is about to be gone forever if Supervisors Cortese and Chavez have their way!” it reads. “Please speak up.”
Supervisors Dave Cortez and Cindy Chavez, the members of the board’s Finance and Government Operations Committee, voted at their Aug. 27 meeting in favor of suspension. Chavez said the Los Altos Hills County Fire District audit uncovered “irregularities” like financial mismanagement that influenced her decision.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents Los Altos Hills residents and is opposed to both suspension and consolidation, requested the board’s Housing, Land Use, Environment and Transportation Committee weigh in on the matter, too, and it did so Sept. 17; both Simitian and Supervisor Mike Wasserman voted to accept the Los Altos Hills County Fire District audit but not suspension, which would mean the board assumes control.
Breaking the tie
If Chavez, Cortese, Simitian and Wasserman’s votes on Tuesday reflect their previous positions, it will be up to Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, the only supervisor who hasn’t yet discussed the issue in committee, to break the tie.
Members of the Santa Clara County Firefighters Local 1165 union are scheduled to host a press conference Thursday (Oct. 1) in downtown San Jose to persuade Ellenberg and her colleagues toward consolidation.
“Recent management audits, Civil Grand Jury reports, the 2019 Wildfire Risk & Response Report and a number of other studies that have been completed over the years, all recommend much needed improvements to the County’s regional fire protection system,” reads a press release announcing Thursday’s event. “Your firefighters have worked tirelessly to address this problem, fighting historic fires all over California over the last several years, and it has been pushing our firefighters to the brink and straining our fire protection system like never before.”
A question from Wasserman about how Los Altos Hills County Fire District funds would be shared if consolidation occurred prompted Santa Clara County Fire Department Chief Tony Bowden to send a memo to the entire board Monday. It addresses some Los Altos Hills residents’ fears that consolidation would drain the ample funding their district collects from high property taxes to prop up firefighting services in distant Santa Clara County cities and towns with lower property taxes.
“Currently, there is a lot of fuel reduction work to be done in Los Altos Hills and it would be of primary importance to ensure that funding generated within Los Altos Hills is utilized to reduce the wildfire threat and increase the operational capabilities within the Los Altos Hills community,” Bowden wrote. “This could be accomplished in several ways, such as working with the Palo Alto Fire Department to jointly staff the fire station in Foothills Park. This station is positioned to serve both Palo Alto and the Los Altos Hills residents in the high hazard area. Unfortunately, this fire station has been sitting vacant for several years.”
The Union 1165 press conference is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Thursday in the courtyard outside the County Clerk Recorder's Office, 70 W. Hedding St., in San Jose. The Board of Supervisors meeting is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. To watch the meeting, visit sccgov.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=12218. For more information, visit losaltoshills.ca.gov/518/LAHCFD-Consolidation and local1165.org.