ATWATER -- Plans to add an emergency fire station to serve the northwest corner of the city went up in smoke this week.
The City Council voted Monday night to hold off on considering a plan to convert a building in the Save Mart shopping center on Winton Way into a temporary fire station until early next year, when a report outlining the department's needs is issued.
The decision was a consolation prize to Councilman Joe Rivero, who spearheaded the effort to spend up to $121,000 to renovate and $285,000 to staff the 1,118-square-foot spot. The plan came after he convinced the center's developer to let the city lease the building for free for three years, saving about $64,000.
His proposal rekindled the debate about the adequacy of the city's fire coverage. The city built a new station last year, but the City Council nixed plans to increase staffing, opting to relocate employees from the downtown station because of the cost.
During the meeting, Rivero accused city staff of stonewalling on the proposed project, while other council members called the plans wishful thinking with lots of assumptions.
Atwater's reliance on two stations, one downtown and one on the east side, endangers the residents in the northwest corner of Atwater because they're farthest away, Rivero said.
Fire Chief Ed Banks reported that about 7 percent of the department's emergency calls are from the area that worries Rivero.
Mayor Joan Faul, Mayor Pro Tem Lesa Rasmussen and Councilman Nelson Crabb wanted to wait for a city-hired consultant to issue a report that will outline the department's staffing needs and where future stations should be located. It also will explain the pros and cons of Atwater contracting with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to run its department.
Rasmussen explained that the city would be spending $121,000 on construction for something that would only be used temporarily. She also noted that she hadn't seen a lease agreement and didn't want to be so careless with city money. "I have nothing in writing," she said. "I have serious concerns."
Rivero countered that he didn't need a professional to tell him where fire stations need to be built, adding that the city couldn't wait to expand its services. "The politicians and bureaucrats can justify any conclusion they want," he said. "They hide behind blanket statements like, 'This is not financially responsible.' "
Atwater has two stations with four firefighters working at a time, while Merced has five times the staffing level, Rivero said. "How did the city of Atwater let the fire emergency and medical services deteriorate to such a level?" he said.
Rivero, along with Councilman Gary Frago, tried to get the council to immediately move forward with the project. That attempt failed 3-2.
On a second attempt, the council voted to keep the idea on the table, but not to consider it until the fire report is released in February.
"Sorry, people, I tried," Rivero said after the vote.