A second Riverbank fire station in The Crossroads area may be in the cards, but it probably won't happen for a couple of years, according to Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Chief Stephen Mayotte.
A station in The Crossroads area was promised in 2003 but never built. A deep financial crisis, a change of administration in the fire district and a restructuring of the property assessments that fund the district took the station off the planning agenda.
It's back on the table, but not a done deal.
The biggest obstacle, Mayotte said, is finding the money to operate the station once it is built.
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"We will definitely do everything possible to make this happen as an agency. I think we can pull this off," he said Thursday.
Even if the district had the money and gave a green light to the station tomorrow, it would take a year to get it built, Mayotte said.
City officials had set aside land at Morrill and Oakdale roads, but used the property for a sports field when the station plan looked dormant. The city is looking for another parcel for a Crossroads station, City Manager Rich Holmer said.
"We need the station immediately. We could have used it seven or eight years ago," Mayotte said.
Riverbank's population has passed 20,000, and the city is divided by traffic on Highway 108, Claribel Road and the railroad tracks, Mayotte said.
"It's potentially a life-or-death situation," Holmer said. "If there is a train coming across the tracks, or it's 5 p.m. on 108, you are stuck."
Crossroads residents also are concerned.
"It seems as though some promises were made at the time of the actual vote to increase taxes," resident Dan Brown said. "More staffing, a new fire station. They used the money to bail out of hard times financially. People are upset."
Building a station is likely to cost a couple of million dollars, Mayotte said, but the bigger problem is staffing it. A two-person engine company would cost $1 million a year, mostly in salaries and benefits, Mayotte said. The district has an operating budget of about $8.1 million.
The district wants to run three-person engine companies, which cost $1.2 million to $1.3 million a year to staff, he said.
The property tax assessment the district passed three years ago to resolve its financial crisis isn't bringing in the revenue that was projected, Mayotte said.
Part of the problem is that Crossroads' plans called for 1,800 homes but only 1,200 to 1,400 have been built, said Buck Condit of the Stanislaus Consolidated Firefighters Association, the union that represents firefighters in the district.
The revenue shortfall has caused the district to use two-person engine companies rather than three-person companies.
Staffing level questioned
That's a safety issue, Mayotte said. The National Fire Protection Association doesn't recognize a two-person engine company as a safe crew, he said. But the district is trying to be financially conservative in the wake of the near bankruptcy it suffered four years ago.
"Financially we are much more stable than we were in 2004," Mayotte said. "We've come out of that black hole. Since then we've taken a hard-nosed, conservative approach with taxpayers' money."
Bumping the district's five full-time stations to three-person engine companies and adding the second Riverbank station would cost $2 million annually, Mayotte said.
Finding that money is the challenge. Another districtwide property tax assessment is one possibility but probably isn't realistic, Mayotte said.
Another possibility is a community facilities service district, which would tax new residents in a growing area to fund a fire station. That solves the problem of building stations in high-growth areas but not in areas that are built up. A third station in Riverbank will be needed as developments on the east side build out, Mayotte said.
Audit may add to funds
Another potential source of revenue is an audit of the assessments on the 15,000 parcels in the district. Fire district personnel are conducting the audit after discovering that some new homes weren't getting onto the tax rolls as quickly as they would like, Mayotte said. Properties that are overassessed usually get resolved when owners complain, he said, but few complain if they are underassessed.
"We just want it to be accurate. We think there is a little money there," he said.
The audit has found about $400,000 in unbilled assessments so far, Condit said. Some of the assessments may have been lost when the district consolidated 13 years ago, he added.
Another possibility is having the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection take over part or all of the management of the district. The district has asked Cal Fire for a proposal to see whether that would save the district money.
A proposal likely will be available this summer.
"If it brings more bang for the buck, great. If not, it's probably not going to happen," Mayotte said. "The board and management are not leaning either way until we get more information. We are really testing all avenues to see what is the best way of delivering emergency services."
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2349.