Fire pits again in budget crosshairs
by SEBASTIAN RUIZ
Published - 12/09/09 - 04:39 PM | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The city’s fire pit program could go up in smoke next summer if the city fails to raise about $173,000 by Dec. 31 to save the program that is hailed as a cornerstone of local beach culture.  

City Park and Recreation Department officials said removal of the fire pits could begin by the end of June if funding is not found. The issue was expected to be heard by the City Council beginning Wednesday, Dec. 9, as the City Council delves into a new, daunting round of budget-cutting decisions. A final vote is tentatively planned for Monday, Dec. 14.

The issue may also not be as cut and dried as a budget matter. Deborah Lee, district manager for the California Coastal Commission’s San Diego coast area, said the city needs a permit to remove the 186 fire rings in parks and beaches or it could potentially face stiff penalties — possibly as much as $6,000 per day for violations. The city can apply for a permit at no charge but the process could take six to eight weeks, Lee said.  

“If the city does want to pursue it, we’re hoping they’ve looked at a number of alternatives,” Lee said.

Such alternatives could include relocating the fire pits to locations cheaper to service, Lee said. As an example, Lee said the city of Coronado applied years ago to remove fire pits because of an “overconcentration” in some areas but ended up simply relocating them.

The fire pit program, which requires a full-time staff of two and a frontloading tractor, was placed on the chopping block a year ago before an anonymous donor stepped up and contributed nearly $260,000 to keep the program running through June 2010.

As the city’s staff works to cobble together a plan to close next year’s estimated $179 million budget shortfall — largely driven by the recession — the city could snuff the program and dispose of the concrete fire pits, said Rachel Laing, spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office.

The city’s current fire pit donor program fund, established to save the fire pits through private, individual donations, sits at a little more than $1,200. Vavi Sports and Social Club donated the largest sum of $250, according to the city documents.

That’s hardly enough to keep the program.

“We’ll keep them (fire pits) if our economy recovers and … if we could get into a position where we could replace them,” Laing said.

Cutting the program would save about $105,000 in salary expenses, with additional savings by cutting associated benefits, Laing said. Though the positions would be eliminated, employees working the program may “not necessarily” be laid off, Laing said.

However, the positions are but two of 530 full-time equivalent positions Sanders proposes to eliminate across city departments. Fire department and public safety positions could also get the ax to help save about $82.6 million, according to city officials. About 200 of those positions being considered for elimination are currently filled, according to a statement by the mayor’s office.

Along with the fire pits, the Park and Recreation Department could cut additional positions, if the City Council approves the mayor’s proposed 18-month budget reductions this week and next, according to Park and Recreation Department Director Stacy LoMedico. 

“They (fire pits) are on the reduction list,” LoMedico said “If the reduction is taken, we’ll be working with the California Coastal Commission staff to determine if any permits are required [before removal].”

While the city maneuvers itself to cut staff and services citywide, some in the community are organizing to save their beloved fire pit program. A Facebook webpage and a website, www.savethefirepits.com, has sparked a small movement.

The website includes an online petition to “save the fire pits.”

Though site administrators could not be reached, the website reads: “… Fire Pits on the beaches have survived for decades, through prosperous and lean times.  Let’s not let the city use these tight times as the excuse to eliminate them forever. This is an opportunity to reduce the costs, but not destroy a San Diego tradition.” 
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