MODESTO — Two and a half years after a celebrated three-way merger of fire agencies, the Modesto Regional Fire Authority without a chief at the moment is talking about layoffs and leaving some stations dark to save money.
Firefighters, already responding to emergencies slower than they would like, would take even longer, say officials staring at a $1.8 million budget gap. They blame the city of Modesto's financial mess for most of the problem.
Cost-saving options include smaller crews and pulling out of the fire station at the Modesto Airport. Because airlines can't operate without federally mandated firefighters standing by, the airport would consider contracting with a private firm or other nearby fire agencies to keep from losing six daily flights to San Francisco.
"It's going to get ugly," predicted Vito Chiesa, chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
The mood was gloomy when fire administrators unveiled a list of potential cuts Wednesday. But all partners eventually said they're committed to finding solutions.
"We want this (merger) to work," said Tom Burns, authority chairman and Salida's representative on the three-person board. "There are some speed bumps we'll have to navigate, but we'll get through it. Don't take our caution as saying we need to break it apart."
Spirits were high in January 2011 when stations in Modesto and Salida united with the county's fire warden office to create the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, charged with protecting 43 percent of the county's population. Consolidation helped eliminate some office and support functions, saving a combined $1 million the first year.
But it wasn't long before the authority was scrambling to keep from getting sucked into Modesto's financial bog.
To save money, the city cut dozens of fire service positions. Regular payroll went down, but overtime soared far over budget when the authority was forced to call firefighters back on duty to meet mandated staffing minimums of three people per engine.
Last year, more than half of the city's 201 employees making more than $100,000 were firefighters 104 of them, all because of overtime pay. One engineer with a base salary of $83,173 more than doubled his paycheck to $171,708.
Other problems, some linked to the region's slow recovery from the recession, have opened an $11.8 million shortfall in the city's proposed general fund budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. City Council members soon will decide how to counter the red ink.
Mayor Garrad Marsh proposes spending $121,000 more than last year on the fire authority. But that's a dismal $757,000 less than the authority needs to cover rising obligations that the city set in motion long ago, including a pay raise for firefighters and higher retirement and workers compensation costs.
Marsh for months has floated the idea of asking voters for a sales tax increase to benefit public safety. Results of a survey unveiled Tuesday suggested public support, but some City Council members prefer boosting the economy in other ways, or cutting costs.
Meanwhile, the fire authority twists in the wind.
It's not the end of the world if Modesto can't get its act together, said Supervisor Bill O'Brien, the county's representative on the fire board. He noted bylaws saying that service levels simply would be reduced for any of the three agencies that fail to honor financial obligations.
Talk of reducing fire investigations in Modesto alone didn't sit well with Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside, the city's representative. "I'm hearing a lot of 'his, mine, yours.' I thought we were well beyond all that, and I'm a little disappointed," she said. "We should be much further along in this marriage."
Burnside walks a fine line, defending Modesto at the fire board while sticking up for the authority at the City Council. She is chairwoman of the council's finance committee and was its only member voting "no" on Marsh's proposed budget because it doesn't address the fire shortfall.
City leaders have had five years to prepare for firefighter raises since signing a labor agreement in 2008, said Burnside, who was elected in 2010; a 2.5 percent increase is scheduled for July. "We knew those were coming," she said.
Reducing services in Modesto, without hurting Salida or affecting services provided by the fire authority to the rest of the county, is harder than it sounds for a partnership trying to act like a united agency. "We have to consider what's best as a region," Burnside said, "not just a tiny piece of the pie."
Modesto provides nearly 84 percent of the fire authority's $30 million revenue, the county contributes 12 percent and Salida 4 percent. But each agency has an equal voice on the three-person fire board.
If the authority lays off firefighters, it could lose a $1.8 million federal grant paying the salaries of nine firefighters for two years, and it might have to repay the money for violating terms of the grant. Other cost-cutting options considered by the authority also could doom the grant, such as pulling out of the airport's fire station and reducing staffing at the downtown Salida station from three people to two.
And some cuts might require deals with the firefighters' labor union. "We're open for discussing options," said Modesto City Firefighters Association President Tim Tietjen.
'Brownouts' tried before
A few years ago, the city resorted to "brownouts," or closing a station for about a day at a time, dispersing firefighters assigned there among other stations to fill staffing gaps. That saved from paying overtime but proved to be a "scheduling nightmare," Division Chief Sean Slamon said.
Despite rocky times, all representatives say the merger remains a good idea. Some among 16 other fire agencies throughout the county may be interested in joining someday, Burns said.
"MRFA is a good thing for the people of this area, absolutely," O'Brien said. "We're working through the bumps."
The Modesto Regional Fire Authority Board will consider service reductions and other cuts in a proposed budget at 1:30 p.m. June 26 at 3705 Oakdale Road, Modesto.
On the Net: www.modestorfa.org.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.