Nine firefighters will be laid off, fire stations closed
By Ashiah Scharaga, Enterprise-Record
Posted: 02/07/17, 11:02 PM PST | Updated: 3 hrs ago
Chico – Nine Chico firefighters will lose their jobs and several city fire stations will close this March.
Tuesday, the City Council decided not to fund those positions, formerly funded by an expiring $5.3 million Federal Emergency Management Agency SAFER grant.
Those firefighters will join five others laid off in January.
The department will return to a daily line firefighter staffing level that has not been in place since the 1990s, said Fire Department Chief Bill Hack, dropping from 17 to 14. Firefighter staffing will be reviewed by the council again during the budget cycle this spring, however.
The Chico Fire Department will begin developing an implementation plan for station locations, deployment and prioritized emergency medical dispatching, as well.
The vote was 4-3, with Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer, Councilor Andrew Coolidge and Councilor Ann Schwab against.
To provide for those nine positions would have required $352,150 for the rest of this fiscal year and $988,725 annually. Instead, the city will pay between $30,000-40,000 in one-time expenditures for accrued leave.
Hack, who recommended maintaining staffing at its current level, said the future is uncertain. More firefighters on the streets means a reduced risk to citizens, and calls for service continue to climb by about 2 percent each year. Last year there were 12,000.
The department will provide the best protection it can with the reduced staffing level, he said.
After the meeting, Hack was hugging firefighters and community members, who left the Council Chambers solemnly after the decision was finalized.
So far, the department had maintained a minimum daily staffing of 17 firefighters and kept all six fire stations open. This is because the council provided funding in November through Tuesday, so it had time to review a Fire Department efficiency study.
The Standards of Response Coverage study, a $50,000 analysis, is intended to be used as a road map for the department for decades. It has short-term and long-term staffing and optimal fire station location recommendations, among other suggested improvements. It recommends a minimum staffing of 17 firefighters per day.
Mayor Sean Morgan said the report was excellent and he wished there was one as thorough for every department. The decision would have been easier to make if the city had saved for those positions during the years it had the grant, but it didn’t, he said. He knows the city does not have nearly one million dollars a year to fund those positions.
“When you’re at less than zero, we’re trying to do everything we can for a few years just to avoid bankruptcy, and that’s what gets us here,” he said. “This (report) is optimal. This is what we need to work toward, whether we can do it tonight, whether we can do it in June or it’s next June.”
Fillmer said city staff should have received clear direction when the grant was accepted on whether it was temporary or permanent. If it was just a two-year thing, staff should have been planning and preparing.
“I go back to we have to be fiscally conservative. That’s what we have to do. It’s a really hard decision to make tonight,” she said. “Our community wants that just as much as they want public safety.”
Councilor Mark Sorensen said there was “no ambiguity” in 2014 about what was going to happen: when the funds ran out, the positions would run out. He said firefighter staffing needs to be considered during the budget cycle, along with all other departments, to stay true to the council’s policies.
Coolidge originally voted to provide the $352,150 to fund those nine positions through the rest of the fiscal year, to “kick the can” further down the road. The motion was shot down by all other council members except Schwab.
“I think this was one of our top priorities,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “I don’t think this is what the community wants. I don’t think this is what we should be doing.”
Schwab said it’s not fair to bring the Fire Department back to “ground zero.” Other departments have received funds for additional staff members.
“I have always been a proponent of making sure we have adequate city services,” she said, “and that needs to be our priority … now that we have restored all our negative balances and started building our reserves.”
Administrative Services Director Scott Dowell said the city anticipates one-time savings to be around $400,000-500,000 this year. The city would still have a balanced budget and be able to fully fund its reserves if it considered using those funds for firefighter positions, he said.
City Manager Mark Orme said he is struggling to find the revenue to meet other department needs right now, too, which includes police officers and public works road maintenance to the tune of millions of dollars for appropriate upkeep. With unfavorable sales tax revenue projections and CalPERS retirement increases coming down the road, the city is on “thin ice,” Orme said.
That leaves the General Fund as the main source to cover costs, and it is also a main source of funding for police and parks.
“I will be working diligently through this budget season to try and find those dollars,” he said. “At this point in time, I don’t know where they are.”
Contact reporter Ashiah Scharaga at 896-7768.