Two years ago, Ceres was one of 14 fire departments in California to win a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It directed $1.03 million in U.S. Treasury dollars to pay for six firefighters for two years, with no obligation on the city's part to continue their employment unless it found general fund monies to do so.
The two years are now up and it's questionable if the grant will be offered - or snagged - and city officials say they don't have the funds to keep them employed. That sent about 20 firefighters and family members to Monday's Ceres City Council to ask for the jobs to be spared.
Ceres Fire Captain Jeff Serpa tied the six firefighters to the issue of firefighter safety. He said OSHA dictates that two firefighters can only go into a structure unless there are two firefighters outside. "Adequate staffing is imperative for both firefighter and civilian safety," said Serpa.
City officials have been aware that the federal grant funding ends on Sept. 22 and have been working closely with Rep. Jeff Denham to learn when or if the grant funding is made available again to see if Ceres can be funded again. Ceres Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes said the grant has been approved but it's unknown when the grant program will be open for applications.
Serpa asked if the council if the city has a plan once the six firefighters are cut. "Are we dropping staffing? Are we bringing out stations? Again, how are we going to operate with six less firefighters on the street? We can't wait until Sept. 22 to develop a plan. We are already behind."
He asked the council to allow firefighters as "resident experts in the business of firefighting" to help develop an operational plan.
"We all have ideas, thoughts and plans that we feel could work to keep these six firefighters; we just need you to sit down with us and listen. These layoffs have names."
Scheduled to be out of work next month - unless the city finds the funding - are Gregory Selvera, Vince Milbeck, William Dyer, David Steenburgh, Chris Steenburgh and Rui Carapinha.
Billy Finley, a Ceres fire engineer, charged that the city had spent Measure H funds in ways that had not been represented.
In 2007 Ceres voters passed a half-cent sales tax for police and fire services. He said the tax was sold to citizens to have all four Ceres fire stations operating with three-man engine companies.
"Here we are in 2014 but only one of the stations in the city is funded by Measure H," said Finley. "How did we get here? The number one reason, in our opinion, is that decisions have been made in regards to the fund and the way that this money has been spent."
He accused the city of "deviating" from the original spending plan. Finley said that firefighters campaigned for Measure H on the promise that the new tax money would not go toward overtime nor supplant the general fund.
"It was boots on the streets - that's what we had to assure them. We're at the point now where a federal grant has given Measure H a two-year reprieve from having to fund six positions."
Finley said "I feel like we're being dishonest because I made promises." He called for the council to "right the wrongs that have been done."
His comments did not sit well with Mayor Chris Vierra.
"We do have an oversight committee," said Vierra, "so if I'm hearing you correctly you're saying the oversight committee has inappropriately suggested the funding? Your words, not mine."
Finley answered that the committee only made recommendations but had no final say on where Measure H monies have been spent. Vierra answered "they've approved everything that's been done."
"I beg to differ with your assessment of the oversight committee and what this board has done," said the mayor. "You're entitled to your opinion but I don't want it to go on record that we have not done what the citizens wanted because that's not true."
Finley said "It's not just my opinion. I'm obviously not here to argue with you about it but that's how our union feels about it."
Vice Mayor Bret Durossette reminded Finley that the recession hampered sales in Ceres and that Measure H did not produce the tax revenue initially projected. He also reminded the firefighters that Measure H allowed Ceres to refrain from laying off firefighters like most cities were doing when the recession hit.
"Times are tough," said Durossette. "We're still looking at a one point something million dollar issue here."
Funding the six would cost the city $50,000 each month.
He stressed that the city is not laying off anyone, noting that the grant paid for the six positions for only two years.
When then City Manager Art deWerk oversaw the hiring of the six in 2012, the city drafted a letter to the Ceres Professional Firefighters union to stipulate that their jobs were not guaranteed past the two-year grant funding period.
Vierra added "we anticipated this day would come. We knew that you'd all be standing here and we'd have to be dealing with this. We didn't want there to be any hidden agendas. We knew about it two and a half years ago. We hoped that we'd never have to be here on this day to have this discussion but we anticipated it ... we don't want to have anybody go either. I wish we had a money pot that we could draw from. We don't have that. We're trying everything that we can to keep as many people employed, give everybody all the concessions that we've been so kind to give us. But it's like I tell me kids, if I have a dollar I can't spend a dollar ten."
Durossette agreed that the city needs a plan to deal with six less firefighters. The council will convene on Sept. 8 to consider alternatives.
At Monday's meeting, the council approved a contract with firefighters to restore five percent of their concessions over the next two fiscal years. The new contract also gives firefighters back four paid holiday vacation days in July 2015. A uniform allowance will be reinstated then as well.