Santa Clara County fire district mergers recommended after audits suggest mismanagement

Citing alleged mismanagement that potentially put thousands of residents at risk, auditors are recommending the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors consider merging the Los Altos Hills and South Santa Clara County fire districts, along with the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District.

A May 22 audit found the Los Altos Hills district spent funds on infrastructure outside the district’s purview, kept records at private residences and used private legal services instead of the county’s own lawyers.

The South Santa Clara County district’s audit pointed out that nearly 33,000 residents are not under the jurisdiction of any one fire district in the county, a concern that’s only grown in recent years.

The audit also found the Los Altos Hills Fire District violating the Brown Act, designed to protect the public’s access to government meetings.

“I think there has been, there are some irregularities, for me there are some concerns, I don’t want to exactly call it sloppiness, because I’m not sure thats the right term, but there are some irregularities that have caught my attention,” said Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez of the Los Altos Hills district.

Leaders of the districts challenged the findings.

“We have a vehemently strong response to this,” said George Tyson, president of the Los Altos Hills Fire District. “We’ve had three sets of lawyers tell us that everything we’ve done is absolutely correct.”

Auditors also suggested redirecting funds from law enforcement — about $220 million per year — for fire prevention and creation of “defensible space” in the districts

The South Santa Clara County Fire District covers approximately 289 square miles of unincorporated areas with a population of about 53,784. In addition to Los Altos Hills, that district covers Loyola, Los Trancos and San Antonio Hills.

“Each district collects revenue from property tax in its own area. For a long time, because of the property tax values, the South County district has been financially strapped,” said County Executive Jeffrey Smith. “Central county has been in reasonable position … and Los Altos (fire district) has been flush with revenue. So there’s quite a bit of difference between the three.”

With this in mind, auditors say consolidating all districts in the county would help South County ease its budget woes and cover areas not currently protected. It also would ensure the Los Altos Hills district is better monitored.

“We should lean toward the (auditor’s suggestions) not because there isn’t a real challenge with the financial structure but because it reinforces what the actual needs are for the (South County) district,” Chavez said.

The Board of Supervisors is set to discuss the merger Oct. 5. To see the agenda and view the meeting, go to the county’s meeting portal.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MadelynGReese

 

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