The City Council on Monday approved a plan to retain six firefighters who otherwise would have lost their jobs Sunday, when a two-year federal grant expired.
The council voted unanimously to fund the positions until June 30, the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year, to allow time for the city to apply again for the grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city has been waiting for the grant application period to open. Officials first were told it would open as early as August but are now hearing it won’t open until November.
“If we find ourselves at the November 11th or 24th meeting and we still don’t have a date specified for this grant, I think we need to readdress this and maybe go a different direction,” Mayor Chris Vierra said before approving the plan. “There is going to have to be a threshold at which we say if we don’t have a specific date, then we are just prolonging the inevitable.”
Firefighters have spoken at council meetings about the impact of losing the jobs. Along with management, they came up with a short-term plan to keep them.
Maintaining the positions for the remainder of the fiscal year will cost $393,000, but almost half of that will be covered by savings in overtime costs through an alternate staffing plan that will brown out one of the city’s four fire stations. All of the stations have three firefighters per shift except Station 3, which has two. A total of six firefighters work at the station during three shifts. Those six firefighters will be used to provide relief staffing for vacancies created by vacation, sickness and injury leave.
Interim Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes said the department spends $22,000 to $40,000 a month on overtime, covering for leave and sending firefighters on strike teams to help fight forest fires. Having two firefighters per shift to provide relief staffing will save an estimated $21,000 in overtime costs per month, or $189,000 during the nine-month period.
If only one position needs to be filled during a shift, then the other firefighter from Station 3 will go to Station 4, creating an ideal four-person ladder truck. Nicholes estimated this will leave Station 3 closed 80 percent to 90 percent of the time.
Station 3, on East Service Road, has the lowest call volume: about 1.5 calls per day, Nicholes said. During the first six months of 2014, it responded to 197 calls, compared with Station 1 – the busiest – which responded to 1,011. “That’s not a lot of calls (for Station 3), but it’s important if it’s your call they are coming to,” Nicholes said. “There could be a minute or so delay.”
A mutual-aid agreement with the Modesto Fire Department will help with response times. Modesto’s Station 10 is about two miles from Ceres’ Station 3.
The remainder of the six firefighters’ salaries and benefits will be covered by savings from a budgeted but unfilled position left vacant for several years because of an on-the-job injury, and $100,000 in Measure H funding. Measure H is a half-cent sales tax passed in 2007 to increase police and fire protection.
Original measure H revenue projections made before the recession estimated the tax would have generated $16.3 million in revenue by now, but the actual figure is $13.2 million. As a result, the city has been able to hire only three of the 12 firefighters it had hoped to add by this point, and since 2012, the tax has been used to maintain rather than increase staffing levels for both police and fire.
Staff members will update the City Council monthly on the progress of the funding plan.