Modesto May Close Station, Change Fire Protection

The city may have the fewest firefighters and cops in many years.

June 09--The Modesto City Council on Tuesday is expected to approve a $340 million operating budget that will provide the city with its fewest number of police officers and firefighters in many years and will result in the closure of one of Modesto's 11 fire stations.

The council also is expected to approve terminating the agreement between Modesto, Stanislaus County and the Salida Fire Protection District that formed the Modesto Regional Fire Authority in 2011, when the three governments merged their fire operations.

The MRFA board -- with members representing the city, county and district -- voted in May to move forward with disbanding the fire authority, which officials say needed but was unable to grow by adding other fire agencies.

The county Board of Supervisors and the Salida Fire Protection District board are expected Tuesday to vote on terminating the agreement. The MRFA board then is expected to vote Wednesday on ending the agreement, effective June 30. The government bodies will vote on other issues related to unwinding MRFA and returning fire operations to the three parent agencies.

Those votes include a memorandum of understanding that will aid the three governments in transitioning to providing their own services and a one-year contract in which Modesto will provide Salida with fire services at a cost of $1.2 million.

That will give the district time to decide how it will provide fire protection services to its constituents in the long term. Salida no longer has professional firefighters because as part of forming MRFA its roughly 10 firefighters became Modesto employees.

Officials have said they will continue to pursue regional cooperation among fire agencies but through a model that promotes efficiencies while maintaining the agencies' independence. That model includes such measures as boundary drops, in which the nearest fire company responds to a call regardless of the jurisdiction.

MRFA Interim Chief Sean Slamon -- who is expected to become Modesto's interim fire chief when the city gets its Fire Department back July 1 -- said Sunday that agreements establishing closer ties could come before governing boards in August. He said Modesto has been talking with Turlock, Ceres and the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District about forging closer relationships.

Most of the focus on Modesto's $340 million operating budget has centered on its $107 million general fund. That's because police and fire consume more than 70 percent of the fund's budget. General fund revenues dropped sharply during the recession, resulting in cuts to city services, including public safety.

Though general fund revenues have started growing, the city is proposing more cuts to public safety in the 2014-15 budget:

--Reducing the number of budgeted positions for police officers from 229 to 209. Five years ago, the Police Department was allocated 287 police officers. The 209 officers is just slightly more than the 203 the department was allocated in 1992, according to an organizational chart from that year.

--Closing Fire Station No. 6 on Standiford Avenue near Vintage Faire Mall and deploying its nine firefighters to other stations when firefighters are on vacation or off work for other reasons. This would reduce how much the department spends on overtime. The Fire Department also would see the number of budgeted firefighter positions drop from 138 to 129 because it would eliminate nine vacant positions. This would give the department its lowest staffing since at least 1989.

Slamon said he hopes to keep Station No. 6 open through July 4 and then close it a day or two after the holiday. At one time, fire officials were considering closing a second station, but Slamon said he does not expect that to happen if the City Council approves proposals to provide the Fire Department with more revenue.

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