Oct. 05--On the horizon it looms, an unpleasant reminder that as much as the economic situation has improved in the past couple of years, it's far from back to normal.
So the question of how to keep Ventura Fire Department Station No. 4 open comes up often. In 2014 a three-year partnership between the city and federal government ends, creating a potential funding shortfall.
One big piece in the funding puzzle could come in the form of another federal grant. The department is applying for a $2.4 million grant that would cover the salaries and benefits for nine firefighters from February 2014 to February 2016.
If the city receives the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, it must agree not to lay off firefighters and to fill vacancies that arise during the two-year period.
The City Council approved the agreement with no discussion Monday night.
Fire Station No. 4, on Telephone Road in east Ventura, closed in July 2010 amid budget cuts. Fire officials pointed to longer response times as proof the decision was wrong and looked for ways to reopen the station.
In January 2012, the department received a $2.3 million grant that paid for two years worth of salaries and benefits in exchange for the city pledging to keep the station open a third year.
Ventura's obligation begins next month -- at least, city officials thought it would. It now appears the city is under no obligation to keep the station open a third year, Fire Chief Don McPherson said.
"Now, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) tells us, 'We changed the rules, and we're not holding you to that,' " he said. "It's good news it's not a requirement, but we did set aside and identify funding for an additional year."
The city learned it might not be responsible for the third year when it decided to apply for the new grant, City Manager Mark Watkins said.
City officials wanted to make sure they were eligible for the grant even though it overlapped with the city's obligation, Watkins said. That's when officials learned they didn't have to fund the station for a year.
Even with a grant, the city has to spend money to keep the station open.
Because the grant can pay only for salaries and benefits, the city will have paid a projected $873,000 from November 2011, when the grant began, to November 2013, when it officially ends, according to department estimates. That includes overtime and costs for fuel, energy, equipment and building.
Early estimates based the $1.2 million annual operating cost on the salaries of nine new hires, instead of the higher-paid mix of staff at the station, captains and engineers among them.
By 2014-15, annual costs are expected to climb to $1.6 million.
The full compensation package for a newly hired firefighter-paramedic is roughly $116,000, said Jay Panzica, the city's chief financial officer.
In related news, the council voted to spend $1.14 million to buy two fire engines to replace two engines in operation since 1990.
The "estimated life cycle" for a firetruck is typically 20 years, fire officials said.
The council also approved $100,000 to outfit the engines with tools and equipment and $125,000 to buy an urban search and rescue trailer. To pay for the items, the council voted to approve an additional $415,000 out of the fire department's fleet maintenance fund balance.
During 2013-14 budget discussions, then interim City Manager Johnny Johnston identified fleet maintenance as one of three underfunded internal service funds.
Panzica said the transfer was due to higher-than-expected cost of the firetruck and the original budget didn't include buying a new trailer.
The 2013-14 approved budget set aside $1 million for fire equipment replacement out of fleet maintenance.
Still, the fund is not in any danger, Panzica said: "We're still OK."
Copyright 2013 - Ventura County Star, Calif.