Ceres Fire Station #2 on Pecos Avenue will not close, members of the City Council decided on Monday as the city’s budget was finalized to include more personnel for police, fire suppression, code enforcement and parks.
Earlier this month talk of closing the Pecos Station in favor of four-man engine companies at the two remaining stations sent fire personnel into a panic.
The council has chosen to pursue three man engine companies at the three open fire stations and said it wants to explore restructuring of fire services once a new fire chief has been hired. To achieve three-man engine companies the city needs to fill two vacant firefighter positions and add two more firefighters. The move will require reclassifying some captain and three engineers down to firefighters. The result will be nine engineers, nine firefighters and nine captains.
The city’s financial standings improved vastly from a year ago because of increased sales tax receipts as well as an expected $1.6 million in revenue from three development agreements inked with one medical marijuana producer and two cannabis dispensaries. Wells warned that the state is advising an economic slowdown could be coming and that there is no end in sight to upward spiraling pension costs.
“The fiscal position of the city has improved over the course of this fiscal year,” said City Manager Toby Wells in his staff report. “However, we have not reached the point of being able to fully fund all of the city’s needs. The Great Recession and the corresponding reduction in staffing and services over the past 10 years, will take several years to fully recover from and return to adequate staffing and services levels.”
He said it was the best budget he has presented in five years as city manager. He said it allows the city to have a balanced budget, offers raises for employees, a restoration of services in the areas “needed most,” and builds back reserves that have been depleted in recent years.
Wells presented a budget that leaves the city with a fatter reserve of 21.9 percent compared to the 18 percent minimum the council set last year.
The general fund calls for revenues of $20.5 million and spending $19.8 million with a starting reserve of $3.8 million increasing to $4.5 million by July 1, 2019.
The city intends to fill four vacant police officer positions as well as add two new police officer positions. Because smaller cities like Ceres can’t afford higher salaries paid by larger cities, the city has been having difficulty recruiting new officers as well as retaining those they hire.
Highlights of the budget include:
• Hiring a new fire chief to replace Bryan Nicholes who left the city in 2017;
• Unfreezing two police officer positions;
• Immediately adding a code enforcement officer rather than add a combined code enforcement officer/parks employee;
• Giving raises to employees who have been without them for many years;
• Freezing one Water Distribution supervisor;
• Eliminating the position of Deputy Public Works Director/Assistant City Engineer;
• Unfreezing one vacant Public Works superintendent;
• Hiring temporary parks maintenance workers immediately for six months to tend to the neglected state of parks, and then hire two parks maintenance worker positions to come onboard Jan. 1;
• Adding back the Street Crimes Unit once the police department is at full strength but probably next fiscal year.
City Manager Toby Wells also recommended the continual freezing of a vacant senior parks maintenance worker, a vacant parks maintenance worker aide, four vacant police officer positions, a vacant Battalion Chief position, a vacant deputy Finance Director, a recreation supervisor position, Redevelopment and Economic Development manager, a police sergeant (converted to a lieutenant position), a Hi-Tech Investigator, a vacant administrative clerk, and a vacant custodian position.
Before the council took action to approve the budget, Lourdes Perez, a member of the Ceres Unified School District board, suggested any closure of the Pecos station smacked of “redlining,” or racial discrimination.
“I implore and pray that God touches your hearts and guides your minds to look into the reality and the impact of your decision of scaling down resources in an already underserved area,” said Perez.
Perez also said the decision to close Ceres Fire Station #3 on Service Road fire station in March lengthens the response time should she have to call for service at her home nearby.
Later Mayor Chris Vierra said he was offended at Perez’s insinuation.
“For someone to make a comment that any of the decisions we’re doing on the budget is racially motivated, I personally take offense to that,” said Vierra. “Nothing that we are doing … is racially motivated. It’s due because we have a job to keep the city solvent and if you weren’t taught at an age that when you only have a dollar you don’t spend two. We all would love six fire stations out here and 200 police officers but we have to live within the revenue that we have.”
James Walker and Avery Jackson both implored the council to increase police salaries to help prevent their loss to other cities and the county. However, Len Shepherd suggested that Ceres will always be a “training pit.” He said Measure H, which was a half-cent sales tax for public safety passed in 2007, was “not designed to be the end all for hiring people – it always depends on how people spend money.” Vierra set the record straight about Measure H, saying all of it goes to police and fire.
“It is all related to sales tax,” said the mayor. “The amount that was originally estimated for sales tax has not come to fruition so it’s not as much as we hoped for.”
Mike Miller, president of the Ceres Professional Firefighters Association, thanked the council for working his group, saying firefighters are tired working overtime.
Wells recommended moving the recreation coordinator from part-time to full-time, replacing the recreation manager position left vacant by Traci Farris. However, the council voted to not hire a recreation manager at $130,000 in lieu of making its part-time recreation coordinator full-time.
When it came to a vote on the budget, Vice Mayor Mike Kline and Councilwoman Linda Ryno voted against the majority. Ryno said she wanted a continuing resolution since she was not in favor of hiring new employees until after the city completes negotiations with employee groups to raise wages. Vierra said he voted no because he wanted to add a code enforcement officer on June 1, not immediately.
Mayor Vierra said the city is only able to hire more people because of the cannabis revenues.
“If the federal government comes in tomorrow and says we’re ceasing all operations, we’re back here talking about a different budget because $2 million goes away.”