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Council holds off on exploring contract with Modesto Fire
Ceres Fire Station
Ceres Fire Department will not be taken over by the city of Modesto, at least not now, following last week's council decision to not entertain the idea. - photo by Jeff Benziger

A pitch to have the city of Ceres engage in contracting out fire service to the city of Modesto was rejected – for now – by the Ceres City Council last week.

Fire Chief Kevin Wise said the city could realize a savings of $500,000 in the first year alone because of economies of scale and see increased service. 

Fire regionalization is different from the resource sharing agreement the city entered in 2014. That agreement has Ceres helping neighboring fire agencies with Ceres benefitting from agencies helping it. Mutual aid has been going on for years but the resource sharing has fire departments being automatically dispatched.

Wise said if Ceres contracted for service, any budget cuts experienced by Modesto would not affect Ceres staffing.

He said budget constraints are forcing some agencies to think “outside the box” about eliminating overhead of administration and other expenses.

Wise gave the example of Alameda, Contra Costa, Sacramento Metro, Orange County fire departments where regionalization has taken place. He said the 1993 model in Alameda had five cities and two national laboratory fire agencies come together “is a very successful model.”

Modesto Fire, with its 165 personnel and $45 million budget, has contracts with the city of Oakdale and the Oakdale Fire Protection District.

Wise said the fire equipment and stations would remain the possession of the city of Ceres. A contract would also keep all Ceres firefighters in place.

He said Ceres Fire has limited administration and fire prevention and community risk reduction.

“We have increased calls for service with decreased staffing,” said Wise. “An example would be 10 years ago. We ran approximately 4,200 calls a year for service. We had four fire stations. Since that time we’ve reduced our engine companies by one so we currently have three today and we’ve eliminated our administration by 50 percent. In 2018 we ran 6,100 calls for service. So our workload has increased but we’ve decreased in our staffing.”

He said the city of Ceres relies heavily on the assistance of neighboring agencies during major incidences.

“It wouldn’t hurt to look at a contract,” said Councilman Bret Durossette, who had the discussion item placed on the agenda. He said while he had fears about Modesto City Council being in charge of fire service but said “it could be really beneficial for the citizens or … maybe it’s not.”

Vice Mayor Linda Ryno noted that the contract would be worded to allow Ceres to back out after giving a year’s notice but said “I don’t think that’s something that could be easily undone.” She cited how Ceres firefighters would go from the Stanislaus County Employees’ Retirement Association (StanCERA) to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) for retirement. Ryno also worries about what happens when Modesto cuts service to Ceres as the result of budget problems.

“I just think that’s going to be a slippery slope and I don’t want to go in that direction,” said Ryno. “I don’t think that this City Council should give up their control over what benefits our citizens.”

Ryno said there is no guarantee that all the new fire engines purchased by Ceres will be used exclusively in Ceres.

“I absolutely do not want to see regionalization. I believe Ceres is large enough that we should continue to have our own fire department.”

Wise said firefighters would have reciprocity between the two retirement systems. He also said a reduction to Modesto’s budget would be independent to the contract with Ceres. Wise said Ceres would always have control over the level of service it wants. He also said Ceres’ apparatus would remain in Ceres. 

Councilman Mike Kline said he would be interested in looking at the mechanics of a contract.

Mayor Chris Vierra said he’s never supported the idea of a contract with Modesto.

“I don’t like losing the control,” said Kline. “As a citizen I don’t like the fact that I’m paying a special tax for public safety up and above what another jurisdiction is not doing.”

He said he didn’t want to waste time even looking into a contract and said “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Ceres resident Lee Brandt said Ceres Fire has been doing a “tremendous job” and wants to see local control. 

Councilman Channce Condit said he believes in autonomy and is hesitant to proceed.

“We really can’t make a huge decision like this when we don’t know our city’s finances,” said Condit. “I do think we should hold off and tread cautiously in moving forward with such a big monumental decision.”

Mayor Vierra said the next council can take up the matter again in the spring.