Modesto wants another look at closing fire station

kvaline@modbee.comJune 25, 2014 

Modesto Regional Authority firefighters douse a grass fire north of the Tuolumne River near South 7th Street.

DEBBIE NODA — dnoda@modbee.com

Officials have said Modesto’s new budget puts the city on solid ground because for the first time in years, expenses do not exceed revenues. However, living within its means comes at a cost – $4 million less for public safety and the closure of one of the city’s 11 fire stations.

But now the City Council wants to reconsider the budget and closing the station.

Council members voted 7-0 Tuesday in support of Councilman Bill Zoslocki’s motion to consider increasing public safety spending by borrowing $1 million from other city accounts, a practice Modesto has used for many years and one Mayor Garrad Marsh says it no longer can afford.

It would take four council votes to change the 2014-15 budget, which the council recently adopted and takes effect July 1. Zoslocki and Councilmen John Gunderson and Dave Lopez said Wednesday they don’t want the station to close.

“We have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible, but we also have a responsibility to make sure our citizens are safe,” Lopez said. “We need to keep the fire station open.”

Councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer supports more money for public safety, especially for the police, but said she needs more information before she can make a decision. Councilman Tony Madrigal said he is interested in finding a way of keeping the station open, if that is possible. Councilman Dave Cogdill could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Marsh said he could not support borrowing more money. “It pains me to say that,” he said. “Reducing police and fire both were painful choices to make. This has been the hardest budget I’ve ever seen to get to the point where we live within our means. It’s been a lot of difficult decisions for the council.”

Zoslocki’s proposal will be evaluated by the council’s Finance Committee before coming before the full council. The next scheduled Finance Committee meeting is Aug. 23.

Fire Station No. 6, which is near Vintage Faire Mall, is slated to close July 7, but interim Modesto Regional Fire Authority Chief Sean Slamon said he now needs direction from the mayor and interim City Manager Jim Holgersson on whether to close the station while the proposal is pending.

Zoslocki said he wants the $1 million to keep the station open and for more police officers. Slamon said it costs about $1.4 million annually to operate the fire station and staff it with nine firefighters. One police officer can cost about $100,000 per year.

Zoslocki wants to borrow from the city’s workers’ compensation and employee benefits funds by not fully funding them for 2014-15 and use that money in the city’s $107 million general fund, which primarily pays for public safety. The city did just that for many years to help balance the general fund as it saw revenues fall in the recession and its aftermath.

The workers’ compensation balance was $14.9 million five years ago. It’s now expected to be $10.4 million at the end of the current fiscal year. The employee benefits fund was $14.5 million seven years ago and is expected to end the current fiscal year at $3.3 million.

Officials say the 2014-15 budget is the first in many years that fully funds those accounts and balances the general fund by cutting expenses to match revenues. The budget calls for contributing $8 million to the two funds. City officials say that should match the funds’ expenses. The employee benefits fund also is expected to receive $1.5 million as part of the repayment of money the city borrowed from it.

Modesto had counted on Measure X, a 1 percent sales tax, passing in the November election to stabilize the general fund and to hire more police officers and firefighters and restore services lost to budget cuts. But voters rejected the tax increase.

Marsh said in the wake of Measure X’s defeat, the city needs to live within its means. City officials say revenues are growing again, but not enough to outpace expenses. Marsh said he is concerned if the council borrows more, it will face the same problem in the next year’s budget.

He said the city has other pressing issues as well. The city is in negotiations with all of its labor groups, and Marsh said many city workers have seen their pay decline over several years. Modesto also has struggled to maintain its parks and fix its roads, and it needs to replace aging Fire Station No. 1.

The 2014-15 budget also sets aside a $3 million reserve for the general fund, but Marsh said he does not recommend using that and added Modesto should have a reserve of about $15 million.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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