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6 firefighters may get to stay on
City may close Ceres Fire Station #3 to retain six firefighters
Fire station
The city may be closing down Ceres Fire Station #3 on Service Road and reallocate staffing to save on overtime and be spent on six firefighters in peril of being released due to the running out of a federal grant. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/The Courier

The six Ceres firefighters who were hired two years due to federal grant money that is running out may not lose their jobs under a plan announced at Monday's City Council meeting.

Representatives of the Ceres Professional Firefighters Local union proposed a restructuring plan for the fire department that may close Ceres' least used station - Station 3 on Service Road - and redirecting those personnel to save on overtime costs. The idea is that overtime savings could pay for most of the six firefighters. Final details of the plan will be hammered out in the next two weeks and presented for approval at the Sept. 22 council meeting.

Prior to Monday, city officials said there isn't general fund money to keep the six firefighters after Sept. 22. The grant is paying the salaries of firefighters Gregory Selvera, Vince Milbeck, William Dyer, David Steenburgh, Chris Steenburgh and Rui Carapinha.

In June 2012, Ceres was one of 14 fire departments in California to be awarded a grant through the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) program from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It directed $1.03 million in federal dollars to fund six new firefighters for two years, with no obligation of the city to continue employment unless it found a way to pay for them. The city hired the six with the caveat that the jobs were only offered for two years with the possibility that the city may not be in a financial position to keep them.

City officials have been informed by Congressman Jeff Denham's office that the SAFER grant application process may open up in November. While there are no guarantees, Ceres stands a good chance of getting a retention grant to keep the six firefighters on but Ceres taxpayers would have to fund the gap between the end of the first grant and the beginning of the second grant. That gap could be as long as six months.

City Manager Toby Wells said to make the plan work, the city needs to find a savings of $43,500 per month to keep the six. By closing Station #3, he said the city could fill vacancies with reassigned firefighters that otherwise would have been filled by more costly overtime expenses. Currently one firefighter position is vacant because of a long-term absence and being filled by overtime shifts. The fire employees themselves would have to help out by reducing absences whenever possible, such as vacation scheduling.

"They have some level of control, obviously in terms of, you know, somebody scheduling a three-week vacation that's going to generate that much overtime," said Wells. "Some of it they don't have control over." Illnesses, injuries and emergencies and injuries are the wild card, he added.

The city doesn't expect to be able to pay for the six firefighters entirely through staffing changes. Wells said the city could spend $60,000 to $100,000 to keep the six firefighters funded for six months, borrowing from Measure H, the half-cent sales tax for public safety approved in 2007, to make up the difference. He warned the council, however, that dipping into Measure H could delay the plan to eventually fund three firefighters.

All five members of the council supported the prospects of retaining the SAFER grant firefighters. Mayor Chris Vierra, however, suggested that the firefighters union will be responsible for making the deal work.

"I'm going to expect you to hold your end of the bargain," said Vierra, who stated that he wants to cap the amount going to firefighters or dismiss them if the city goes over.

"I'd love to hire all six if we had the money but we don't have the money," said Viera. "You can't spend what you don't have so we can spend a little bit. We're hearing about a grant from somebody who says it's coming in November that we don't know any perimeters on. That's taking a pretty big risk on a situation where we're going to have six people that we can't afford anyway in the future."

He reminded the crowd of assembled firefighters that the city is giving back the concessions given up by city employees.

"You were kind enough to give us your concessions. We're now going to give them back but then you're coming and asking us to keep everybody employed and that's the challenge we've had all along. We can't give you everything and keep everyone employed. It doesn't work that way."

At the council's Aug. 25 meeting, one firefighter charged that the city wasn't using Measure H funds in the way they were intended. But Vierra sharply rebuked him.

Wells said Measure H revenues have fallen flat because of a decline in local spending because of the recession. The city projected $2.8 million in revenue the first year but came up $700,000 short. Wells said that since its enactment, Measure H has generated $13.2 million, not the projected $16.3 million, and that the expenditure plan has been changed several times. For the current fiscal year, Measure H is projected to bring in $2.9 million, with $1.7 million going to police and $1.3 million to fire.

Most of those who spoke on Monday supported the compromise. Leonard Shepherd, a former state forestry firefighter living in Ceres, said the plan was good because it involves everybody to make it work.

Ed Persike suggested the council may not want to put a cap on what it will spend on the six firefighters, saying "the safety of our firefighters needs to be considered."

Don Cool commended the parties for working together.

Tracy strike team member Matthew Alrich spoke and said keeping the six firefighters on will increase safety of firefighters.

"It's saving lives of a lot of people," he said.

Ceres Fire Captain Mike Lillie left the meeting, saying "I'm walking out of the building with a smile on my face. At least they're giving us the ability to work it out instead of saying no and kicking us out of the place."