MODESTO — A Modesto City Council committee signed off Tuesday on a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that fire officials say leaves a roughly $750,000 shortfall for the Modesto Regional Fire Authority.
Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside, who opposed recommending the budget to the full council, said the shortfall could lead to temporary closures of fire stations and other reductions in service.
Fire officials presented their proposed $30.65 million budget before the Finance Committee during its second and final day of workshops on the city's 2013-14 budget, which starts July 1.
The authority was formed in 2011 when Modesto, the Stanislaus County fire warden's office and the Salida Fire District entered into a joint powers agreement. Modesto provides 80 percent of the authority's budget.
Interim Regional Fire Chief Gary Hinshaw told committee members his agency faces an additional $436,000 in costs in 2013-14 for raises for Modesto firefighters and an additional $442,000 for their pensions. Mayor Garrad Marsh's proposed budget includes $121,000 in extra funding for MRFA, leaving a budget gap of $757,000.
Burnside was the only Finance Committee member who wanted to address the shortfall. She also serves on the fire agency's board of directors. She said the city has an obligation to address the rising expenses because they are part of contracts the city negotiated with its firefighters before the creation of the fire authority.
"These are hard costs we initiated," she said, "raises the city negotiated. I'm really concerned about this."
City officials had not planned to have the fire authority appear before the Finance Committee, but changed their plan after Burnside asked them to. Every other city department made a presentation. Burnside, who has served on the Finance Committee for three years, said fire officials appeared the previous two years.
Councilman and committee member Dave Cogdill Jr. said city revenues cannot keep pace with rising costs for firefighters and said the city needs to expand its tax base to address its revenue shortfalls. Councilman and committee member Joe Muratore said the fire authority needs to restructure, such as having only paramedics respond to medical calls to reduce costs. Burnside said after the workshop the fire authority is looking at that and other ways to control costs.
City Manager Greg Nyhoff said he expects fire officials to report back to the council after they have met with their board and reviewed what level of serv-ice they can provide with their budget and reserves.
Marsh said the fire authority should tap into its $1.3 million in reserves to balance its budget. But fire officials said those reserves are needed to shore up the authority's workers compensation account. Modesto is not fully funding its workers compensation and employee benefits funds this year to help balance its budget.
Committee members voted 2-1 to recommend the City Council adopt the proposed 2013-14 budget, which includes a $343 million operations budget. Burnside cast the "no" vote because of her concerns about the fire budget.
The operations budget includes the general fund, which is expected to have expenses nearly $12 million more than its projected revenues of $104.6 million. The city expects to use nearly $10 million in one-time money plus nearly $2 million in cuts to close the gap.
About two-thirds of general fund spending is for public safety.
Although they discussed it, committee members did not recommend the council spend any money for economic development or to hire an attorney for the city attorney's office, which has lost about half of its staffing in several years.
The council will consider the budget next month.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316
News from this week's city budget workshops:
The city expects to receive $400,000 to $500,000 in additional property taxes this year because of an improving residential housing market. The city will know more in the coming weeks when the county property assessor releases updated information.
The city plans to spend $630,000 for two slurry seal trucks to help maintain roads. Streets are slurry-sealed to extend their lives. The city rebuilds about five miles each year of its worst streets, but expects to annually slurry-seal at least 15 miles of roads that are in far better shape. The $630,000 is not from the city's general fund, which pays for public safety.
The city expects to hire a consultant to study downtown parking, including whether it makes sense to install meters. The city has three public garages downtown, which charge $1 an hour for parking.
City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood expects to bring before the City Council in a couple of months a revised policy on how the city handles email. She said she is discussing the issue with Bee media attorney Karl Olson. The issue came to the forefront this year when another attorney claimed that the city policy of automatically deleting all emails after 30 days violates the state's public records law. The city does copy and keep emails that are needed for city business.
Thursday is Modesto Regional Fire Authority interim Chief Gary Hinshaw's last day on the job after 37 years as a firefighter. His official retirement date is July 12, but he will be on vacation until then. Dale Skiles will serve as MRFA's acting fire chief.
Rich Ulm, the city's director of utility planning and projects, expects to retire by the end of this year.