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Six firefighter positions funded
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Ceres Fire Department will not lose the six Ceres firefighters who were hired two years under a federal grant thanks to a plan forged between city and union leaders and approved Monday by the City Council.

The council approved a deal that dips into Measure H by $100,000 as part of a way to cover the $393,000 expense for the remainder of the year to keep the six firefighters. The city expects to save $21,000 per month in overtime costs to go towards the salaries of the six. The overtime will be reduced by browning out Ceres Fire Station #3, which experiences the least call volume of all four stations, and using existing personnel to cover shifts when they become absent.

Earlier this month representatives of the Ceres Professional Firefighters Local union proposed a restructuring plan for the fire department to close Ceres' least used station - Station 3 on Service Road - and redirecting those personnel to save on overtime costs.

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 that run $104,000 annually.

The fire employees themselves would have to help out by reducing absences whenever possible, such as vacation scheduling.

The city was poised to let go of firefighters Gregory Selvera, Vince Milbeck, William Dyer, David Steenburgh, Chris Steenburgh and Rui Carapinha on Sept. 22 because $1.03 million ran out of the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) two-year grant awarded in June 2012. The city hired the six with the caveat that the jobs were offered only as long as funding was available.

City officials are hopeful that the federal grant re-opens up this fall. Ceres stands a good chance of getting a retention grant to renew funding.

"We're making a quantum leap of faith that when we submit for this grant that we're going to be awarded and there's a possibility that we aren't successful," said Mayor Chris Vierra. "If we are not successful, I would say to those of you out in the audience that we'll do everything that we can to keep as many of you as we can through Measure H or whatever form, but don't harbor any illusions that we can keep you all if we don't have the grant. We said this two years ago. We knew we don't have the funds."

Keeping the six firefighters allows Ceres to have three-man engine staffing at three of the stations. A two-person engine company is at Ceres Fire Station 3.

Wells said it's hopeful that the city can use Measure H funds to permanently fund three of the six firefighters outside of the SAFER grant within two years.

The council said it wants Ceres to withdraw from offering strike teams to help fight forest and wild land fires because it means overtime costs increase.