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Council wont go into debt for fire service
Ceres Fire Station 3
Ceres Fire Station #3 could be browned out once the six firefighters funded by a SAFER grant are issued pink slips in March. The City Council says it cannot afford to keep them, even until June 30. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

The Ceres City Council drew a line in the sand Monday evening and said that with a looming budget deficit of approximately $1.2 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year, it will not continue dipping into reserves to support staffing for the Fire Department.

City Manager Toby Wells recommended that the council request that FEMA extend the time for which the city can spend $320,000 remaining from a $1.2 million SAFER grant which has funded six firefighters since March 2016. But because the city would have to come up with an additional $25,600 to cover expenses, the council was 3-2 against seeking an extension.

The action means that the layoff of six temporary firefighters will be issued in March as planned.

Wells explained that not all of the grant monies will be used up by March 2 because hiring did not start right away and because of vacancies. Had the council sought and won the extension, the six firefighters would have remained in place until June 30.

Wells said overtime in the fire department is "somewhat challenging" because of injuries, vacations, sickness and other reasons. To reduce overtime costs, Wells is also recommending the council enact the alternate staffing plan that was in place before the SAFER grant brought on the six short-term firefighters.

City Finance Director Suzanne Dean went on record as being against Wells' recommendation to seek an extension to spend the balance of the SAFER grant, saying, "I think our pressures on the General Fund are becoming severe as our next item will be discussed." She was referencing the followed agenda item to have the city temporarily borrow from sewer enterprise funds to pay the city's bills until the city receives its next revenues from local property taxes.

She also stated being at odds with Wells' estimation that the alternate staffing plan would save money.

"Mr. Wells and I have not had the chance to reconcile our methods," said Dean.

Ceres Fire Captain Mike Miller, president of the Ceres Professional Firefighters Association, told the council that it should be an easy decision to seek an extension because "$320,000 is a lot of money ... it's virtually free money, especially if we use the alternative staffing plan."

He said losing six men will have a "tremendous" impact to the department.

Ceres Fire Engineer Vince Milbeck said it seemed "pretty sketchy that all of sudden we find out Thursday night that one of the biggest moves is coming before you."

He chided the council for not educating themselves and speaking to fire battalion chiefs to find out why the six firefighters are crucial.

"We're trying to operate at industry standards," said Milbeck. "I just looked it up before I came in here. They're recommending four uniformed personnel on a fire engine for an initial attack. We let go of these six - we have two frozen positions already, I don't know if we're going to be allowed to get those back. Now we're talking about eight. We don't have a chief. We don't have prevention. We don't have a fire marshal, we don't have a full-time secretary. So I just say table this. Somehow we need to meet in the middle."

Milbeck said promises of extra revenue from marijuana facilities excited his department months ago.

"At least we'd like to keep what we have now."

Former firefighter Leonard "Shep" Shepherd thought it best to put off the decision until the council could become educated. He said it didn't seem like the council has sit down with those who fight fires "to see what they need, not what they'd like to have."

"Right now, Ceres Fire does not have the staffing recommended by the national standards," said Shepherd. He said a four-man engine will allow firefighters to meet the "two-in, two-out" standard of entering a burning building while not having to tie up a second engine and a total of six people.

Councilman Bret Durossette said it was always inevitable that the city would be losing the six firefighters.

"Whether it's March 1, 2018 or June 30, we're going to losing six individuals," said Durossette. "At the same time, too, we may be losing more individuals because if we want to try to get the budget correct ... it's about 12 individuals that would have to be laid off outside of the six. I'm all for extending this until June 30 but at the same time too we have to understand we're going to have to find some new way of doing business in Ceres because we can't do what we've been doing."

Council Ken Lane supported an extension but said restructuring of the department is in order.

"We're going to have to make changes," said Lane. "Like Councilman Durossette said, it amounts to 12 bodies. I'm not saying 12 fire guys or saying 12 officers. I'm saying it's about 12 $100,000 positions is where we have to get to. We can't keep living this way."

Vice Mayor Mike Kline asked "Why do we wait until it gets here? The fire service knew it was coming. Why do we wait until it gets to the 13th hour and we did the same thing two years ago. I look at overtime ... and always question, why didn't we do this earlier?"

He said he could not support the extension.

Councilwoman Linda Ryno echoed Kline's sentiments.

"We knew the grant was going to end in March so why didn't we have discussions prior to December?"

She said the city is projecting a 14 percent general fund reserve which is four percent below what the council set as a minimum.

"It may be $320,000 in free money but when I look at spending $25,639, to me it's not free money," said Ryno.

Mayor Chris Vierra said accepting SAFER grants have put the council in the line of fire when it comes to layoffs.

"We just keep kicking the can down the road," said Vierra. To the firefighters present he said: "We need all the services that you have. We need all the people that you have. We can't afford all the people and all the services you have."

In answer to public criticism lobbed at the council for spending money on downtown, the mayor said the city cannot use the funds for downtown makeover on fire operations.

"I don't want to have to get rid of anybody. I don't want to have to get rid of any services. But like I told a lot of you, when we have a dollar in revenue coming in, we can't spend $1.50. It doesn't work."

He pledged that the city will not go bankrupt.

The mayor also said that even with all the projected revenues from the marijuana facilities, the city will still be facing a 14 percent General Fund reserve.

The impending loss of six firefighters will likely result in the closure of Ceres Station #3 on Service Road - the least used among four in Ceres. With the loss of the six firefighters, the city can only keep all four stations staffed with three firefighters if there are no absences.

Anticipating that the city would not have the funds to keep the six at the end of the SAFER grant funding cycle, the city and the Ceres Professional Firefighters Association Local 3636 signed an agreement in November 2015 that the city would give the six affected employees a six-day notice.

Wells said the city is continuing to explore contracting out fire services with Modesto Fire or Stanislaus Consolidate fire departments to save the city money.

The city of Ceres was successful in snagging federal SAFER grants in 2012 and again in 2015, which funded six firefighters for only two years.