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Fire cuts loom with huge deficit
City Council eyes experts for fire service fix
Interested in the councils Monday evening discussion of fire services was formerCeres Battalion Chief Mike Lillie (now with Modesto Fire) and Ceres Fire Battalion Chief John Gomes. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Faced with a looming budget deficit of anywhere from $1 million to $2 million, the Ceres City Council on Monday signaled it may contract out fire services to another agency to pare down costs - or look at layoffs and station closures.

"This is a very dire time, I cannot stress that enough," said Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra. "This is not an easy decision but we don't want to be looking at bankruptcy either."

City officials outlined that the cost of providing fire services is escalating at a pace faster than revenues come into city officers. City Manager Toby Wells noted that worker's compensation costs have risen $160,000, retirement costs are up $375,000, health and liability insurance costs up $285,000, increasing costs of Stanislaus Regional 911, and failure to set aside monies to replace aging equipment.

To make matters worse, the two-year $1.2 million federal SAFER grant which temporarily funded six firefighters, ends in March.

Wells outlined three options for the council to bring spending under control within the General Fund, of which an estimated 80 percent goes to police and fire services. The options include:

• Hiring a consultant to perform a detailed analysis of Ceres' fire services and recommend options;

• Explore contracting for services, such as the way Oakdale contracted with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District, or turning over the city's obligation to cover the Industrial Fire in south Modesto to Modesto Fire Department;

• Explore consolidation or regional efforts;

• Pursuing a combination of all three options.

The council instructed Wells to research the cost of a consultant and report back when the council conducts a special Budget Workshop on Monday, May 15. Any recommendations would likely not be available until the city is four to six months into the 2017-18 budget year, however.

In the next few weeks Wells will also be feeling out the neighboring fire districts to see their interest in consolidation or contract services. He told the council that informally there has been interest.

Ceres Fire Captain Mike Miller, president of the Ceres Professional Firefighters Association, said his members are interested in contracting with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Department. But he also suggested the city once again dip into reserves and spend another year to study ways to change fire delivery services.

"I believe with some creative budgeting within the Fire Department I think we could save another $300,000 to $400,000 without really affecting service level to get us by," said Miller. "That dips into the reserve a little bit but it's not seven figures but it's a start. There's plenty of departments that can take a short time hit to give us time ... we need this next budget year to reevaluate all of our services across the city. We can't do it in two months. This could be devastating to the services of the city. People are going to get hurt."

Miller then suggested that city management waited to the last minute to broach the subject.

"Direction was given this last year that we would take this budget year and re-evaluate our services," said Miller, "but here we are, 30 or 60 days from deadline, and we didn't fully re-evaluate services."

In answer to Miller's plea to dip into reserves again, Mayor Vierra said "the day of reckoning is here and we have to act or else we will be that (bankruptcy) boat ... we have to make a change."

The meeting grew tense at times as Miller pressed for cuts with assertions that Ceres Police and other departments are not being asked to shoulder budget cuts.

"I agree there's a huge problem going on but it just feels that these shoulders are very heavy with the burden of the budget right now," said Miller. "It doesn't feel like there are other departments sharing the same burden and I hope that if you do make drastic changes to the fire service that our parks turn brown and this building closes down. There's a lot more that can be done before we devastate fire service."

Councilman Ken Lane countered that police "have taken some big hits ... now we're looking at fire."

Miller said fire has taken hits by losing a fire prevention officer. Lane said he hopes fire personnel work with the city but cautioned "if it's closing fire stations, that's what we have to do. I don't want to do that. I'm hoping there's a better solution."

"If you devastate fire service, we will not be with you," retorted Miller.

After the meeting Sgt. Darren Venn, president of the Ceres Police Officers Association, refuted Miller's claims.

"We've made a ton of sacrifices so far," said Venn. "We have nine frozen positions and we're operating at minimums of three officers on the street for any given eight- to 12-hour period. We've sacrificed enough already. If it wasn't for Ceres Unified picking up three positions and Measure H picking up another seven we'd be down another 10 officers. If they're so understaffed and underfunded, how much overtime did they spend this year in a fully staffed department."

Vierra hinted he's willing to cut back on services even if it means response times that are slower by a minute.

"If we're a minute later, or two minutes or three minutes, I don't want it to be that way but I want to live in the Hearst Castle but I can't afford it," said Vierra.

Wells said a hired expert could show the council the relationship between service levels and response times. He estimated the costs of a consultant would be $50,000 to $60,000.

Ceres resident Leonard Shepherd, a former state firefighter, suggested that all nine cities consolidate equipment for cost savings.

Rebecca Harrington, who sits as an elected member and chair of the South Modesto Municipal Advisory Council, addressed rumors that the council will be closing the station on Pecos Avenue. She said the former Industrial Fire Station provides one of the few good services to the people living along the Ninth Street corridor and unincorporated county area to the east.

Miller said closing the former Industrial station, now Ceres Fire Station #2, made no sense since it serves older homes that are more prone to fires. He said a quarter of the costs of the station are covered by the city's contract with Industrial Fire District

Later the council said nobody has presented the idea of closing that station.

Vice Mayor Bret Durossette suggested that the city may have to re-evaluate its practice of sending out large pieces of expensive equipment to respond to medical aid calls.

The station that responds to the lesat amount of calls is Ceres Fire Station #3 on Service Road. It accounts for 7 percent of the total city call volume. By contrast, the downtown station represents 36 percent of calls while the Pecos Station cares for 34 percent. Ceres Fire Station on Fowler Road station responded to 1,358 calls last year, or 23 percent of the total.