Modesto, Stanislaus County and Salida merged their fire agencies four years ago, creating the Modesto Regional Fire Authority to save money and increase efficiency.
City Manager Greg Nyhoff and county Chief Executive Officer Stan Risen told MRFA board members Wednesday that the fire agency has made impressive strides in achieving those goals but questioned whether those gains can continue under the MRFA’s current structure.
“We want to take a step back and ask, ‘Is there another model that would be more conducive?’ ” Risen said in an interview after the board meeting. “My gut tells me a little less formal model” would work.
MRFA board Vice Chairman Dave Lopez – who serves on the Modesto City Council – directed staff to work with Nyhoff and Risen, as well as with MRFA Chief Randall Bradley and a Salida Fire Protection District board member, to develop proposals about the fire authority’s future and report back to the board at its May 7 meeting.
The MRFA’s three-person board is composed of one representative from each of its partner agencies. Supervisor Bill O’Brien represents the county; Mark Brubaker represents Salida.
Lopez said all options will be considered, from revamping the MRFA’s bylaws and governing structure to replacing it with another model that promotes regional fire cooperation. “There is nothing that is off the table,” he said.
The MRFA was formed in January 2011 when the city, county and Salida Fire Protection District entered into a joint powers agreement. The agency consists of the fire departments of the city and Salida, as well as the county fire warden’s office. It has a $31.9 million budget and about 160 employees. Modesto provides $24.5 million of the fire agency’s funding and most of its employees.
The agreement says the authority can be dissolved upon the consent of its board and those of its three parent agencies. The agreement also says that upon dissolution, the three agencies shall be given sufficient time to establish fire protection services.
Nyhoff said the MRFA has not been able to attract additional fire agencies and realize more efficiencies because of its joint powers agreement. That agreement states that fire agencies must turn over their assets to the MRFA when they join. Nyhoff said agencies are reluctant to do that.
There also are concerns about how the MRFA’s governing board grows as the agency adds members. For instance, as more cities join, they would share one seat on the board. The same is true for fire districts. The joint powers agreement states the board will have no more than five members no matter how many additional cities and fire districts join.
MRFA, Modesto and county officials recently talked with Ceres and the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District officials about how the agencies can work together more closely.
Ceres City Manager Art de Werk said he favors focusing on more informal arrangements. For instance, he would like the agencies to expand a pilot program on boundary drops, in which the closest engine company responds to a call regardless of the jurisdiction.
He also envisions greater cooperation in such areas as standardizing training and sharing training officers.
Officials said that even if the MRFA disbands, cooperation among area fire agencies won’t stop. That’s in part because of tight budgets and the growing trend of regionalization. De Werk said that during his 15 years in the county, he never has seen as much cooperation among fire agencies as in the past couple of years.