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Published September 21st, 2016
Differences Seep Through in High-profile MOFD Race
Craig Jorgens

Distinctions between Victoria Smith and Craig Jorgens, candidates for the Division 5 seat on the Moraga-Orinda Fire District governing board, may not seem as glaring as those between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Still, shades of difference creep into the north Orinda candidates' dialogue, especially regarding the tax disparity between the two district municipalities.
Property Tax Allocation
Many Orinda residents resent that they pay a higher percentage of their property tax dollar to the fire district than do Moraga residents, and they want those extra tax dollars to remain in Orinda.
"It's time to discuss this again. There's enough of a there, there, that it needs investigating. We need to present the analysis and publicize the conclusions until the community is satisfied," said Jorgens, retired president of a global mobile communications company. "The board represents everybody, but you have to do what is correct."
"If there is an inequity, what can we do?" said Smith, a real estate lawyer, stepping down after serving 12 years on the Orinda City Council, including three terms as mayor. "The rates are set by Proposition 13. Raising the fire flow tax might be one way to fix it, but I don't see that happening." The district bills the fire flow tax at roughly six cents per square foot of a residence. By MOFD policy, Moraga's fire flow tax rate could increase to 30 cents, while Orinda's rate is maxed out.
Pension Plan
The district reports its net pension liability at more than $28 million.
"The issue should not be about redirecting funds among the taxpayers," Smith said. "If you have this extra money, I want to see it go toward paying down the unfunded pension liability."
"Not a huge number of things we can do about that figure," Jorgens said. "Maybe produce ranges of forecasts, and see what other scenarios present themselves." Both candidates support prefunding of district pension costs into an investment vehicle similar to the trust account MOFD uses to prefund its health care expenses.
Firefighters' Contract
Not willing to risk having the district impose an unfavorable contract on them, firefighters in 2014 agreed to a four-year contract that, to this day, they regret having signed. Fire Chief Stephen Healy has reported on his struggles to recruit and retain personnel because the MOFD firefighters are not paid comparably to those in other regional fire districts.
"Coming out of the recession, the board had issues to deal with," Smith said. "I give full credit to the union for being willing to go along with the contract." She said MOFD must continue to deliver high-quality emergency medical service, but you have to maintain a solid financial base from which to do it. "You may never be comparable in a small district," she said. "Orinda employees have never led the charge on wages."
"We have terrific firefighters," Jorgens said. "We have a highly trained emergency staff, delivering a high level of service, which people are happy with. We have to do whatever it takes. If retaining staff is an issue, that tells us we have a problem." Stressing the need to improve the recruitment and retention of firefighters, three times he commented, "We have to do whatever it takes."
North Orinda Fire Danger
Much of north Orinda lies in a high fire hazard severity zone, and to reduce the chance of a major disaster, Jorgens said that MOFD could do a better job mapping and identifying where the current fire hazards exist. Smith said she favored moving fire station 45 from Orinda Village to Miner Road, closer to the north Orinda hazard zones.
Something to Think About
Both candidates said it is important that a board question things, and each presented an idea for the MOFD board to consider.
"In Orinda, we have a lot of citizen involvement, with citizens serving on one committee after another. Our finance advisory committee is very helpful. Give a working group at MOFD a chance to see the financial side - where the money comes from, where it goes," proposed Smith.
"Nothing dramatic or preconceived, but maybe some modeling based on 'hot spots' and where to deploy assets," Jorgens said. "For example, we know the hot spots for fire, but do we know them for medical? The tow truck guys know where the accidents will be on the freeways, and they deploy themselves there."
Candidate Summary
Jorgens said that he wanted to apply some of his engineering and operational experience to his home, the Orinda community.
"I am skilled in engineering and emergency communications, and I have worked with emergency organizations all over the world in the cellular and satellite business," Jorgens said. "I've worked with regulators and governments and I understand how to get things done with governments. I bring a broad background in finance and in technically oriented businesses and operations. You want to be able to draw on those experiences to help manage a team."
Smith noted that her husband grew up in Orinda, her mother lives there and that the fire district is a critical community enterprise.
"I want to stay in Orinda, and I am not interested in a higher office. Public safety is one of the most important aspects of a community," Smith said. "I know a lot of people from all over. You gain a sense of the whole, and where you fit in the whole. You have to be able to develop relationships outside your district. I know how to foster those relationships and how they work."
The candidates will face off at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Orinda Library auditorium.

John Jex ran unopposed for the MOFD Division 2 seat and will be appointed in lieu of election. Jex declined to be interviewed until his appointment is confirmed by the Board of Supervisors, likely in early December.

Victoria Smith

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