Modesto Fire Department budget in flux

08/22/2014 4:00 PM

08/22/2014 11:43 PM

The Modesto Fire Department is considering buying a specialized type of equipment to help patch a hole in its budget and keep all of its fire stations open.

But the budget could need more patching if the Salida Fire Protection District stops contracting with Modesto for fire services, which is what the district is weighing. The city provides the district with nine firefighters at an annual cost of $1.2 million, but the district is looking at restarting its fire department.

Fire Chief Sean Slamon said his department is looking at purchasing what is called a “quint,” a type of aerial ladder truck that – unlike a traditional ladder truck – has a water tank and pump and hoses and can fight small fires. He said the Ceres Fire Department and Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District each have a quint.

If the department purchases one, it would replace the fire engine and ladder truck at Fire Station No. 1. The firefighters assigned to the ladder truck would operate the quint, while the nine firefighters assigned to the engine would be deployed to other stations to fill in for firefighters who are off work. That would reduce the department’s overtime spending.

Slamon said the nine firefighters eventually would fill the jobs of firefighters who are expected to retire in the coming months.

The department was considering closing Fire Station No. 6 near Vintage Faire Mall and deploying its nine firefighters in the same manner. The closure was included in the city’s $340 million operating budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which started July 1.

City officials have said the budget was the first in many years that was balanced without using reserves or borrowing from other accounts. But soon after passing it in June, council members had second thoughts about closing a station and decided to take another look at the fire budget, which at $22.6 million is nearly $2 million less than the department’s 2013-14 budget.

The council’s Finance Committee is expected to take the matter up at its Monday meeting, but Slamon said he and other city officials need more time and will ask committee members to consider the matter at their September meeting.

He said one issue officials need answers to is purchasing the quint. He estimates its cost at about $1 million and said the city is waiting to hear from manufacturers on financing terms. Slamon said the money for the quint could come from the general fund, which makes up about a third of the operating budget and primarily pays for police and fire services.

Slamon said the fire budget is in flux in part because of the July 1 breakup of the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, which Modesto, Stanislaus County and the Salida Fire Protection District formed in 2011. The three have gone their separate ways after dissolving MRFA.

A final accounting of MRFA’s finances is expected by the end of the year, and Modesto officials expect to get money back. They won’t say how much. And while it will be a one-time windfall, it could help the Fire Department in the short term.

With MRFA’s demise, Salida contracted with Modesto for fire services at $102,500 per month for nine firefighters. The contract is for six months – July 1 to Dec. 31 – and has an option for a six-month extension to June 30.

Salida Fire Protection District board members voted Wednesday to have their staff talk with the city about a shorter extension because Salida is looking at restarting its fire department.

Board Chairman Jerry DeBoer said after the meeting he and other board members are pleased with Modesto’s service but said the district cannot afford it. He said there also is the matter of community pride in Salida having its own fire service. Before MRFA, Salida had paid and volunteer firefighters. The paid firefighters became Modesto employees as part of forming MRFA.

Salida had operated two fire stations, though one was open 40 hours a week, and staffed its engines with two firefighters. Modesto has three firefighters on its engines.

If Salida ends its contract, the city will need to find $1.2 million annually to keep the nine firefighters who now work in Salida. Slamon said he is developing contingency plans for that possibility.

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