Calif. City Holds Off on Closing Fire Station

June 27--The Modesto fire station slated to close in the city's new budget will remain open for a couple of months while the City Council takes another look at its decision to shutter the facility.

Fire Station No. 6 near Vintage Faire Mall was scheduled to close July 7. But Mayor Garrad Marsh said it will remain open until the council decides the station's fate.

"Staff and myself," the mayor said, "we realize it is not clear what the council is going to want to do. Even though it is budgeted to close, we need to wait for the issues to be resolved." He said the council will be asked to approve about $250,000 to keep the station open for a couple of months.

At its Aug. 23 meeting, the council's Finance Committee is expected to evaluate keeping the station open before sending the matter to the full City Council for consideration.

The decision to take another look at the fire station came after the council gave its second and final approval of the 2014-15 budget, which starts Tuesday. The decision also came after the city held a two-day budget workshop in early May in which closing the station was discussed.

Councilman Bill Zoslocki made the motion at this week's council meeting to consider keeping the station open by borrowing $1 million from other city accounts and diverting that money to the city's $107 million general fund, which primarily pays for police and fire. He wants to use the money for the station and more police officers.

Painful but necessary budget

It would take four council votes to keep the station open. The proposal has the support of Zoslocki and Councilmen Dave Lopez and John Gunderson. "We have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible, but we also have a responsibility to make sure our citizens are safe," Lopez said this week. "We need to keep the fire station open."

Councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer wants to learn more before making a decision. Councilman Tony Madrigal said he supports taking another look at the budget. Marsh and Councilman Dave Cogdill do not support borrowing money for the general fund. "I think at this point in time, I'd say no," Cogdill said.

Modesto has borrowed millions of dollars from city accounts over several years and diverted the money to the general fund. Marsh said this is a practice the city no longer can afford. City officials say the 2014-15 budget is the first in many years that is balanced without borrowing from other funds and by having expenses match revenues.

But the budget includes $4 million in cuts to police and fire, which come after years of reductions to public safety and other city services, such as park maintenance and repairing streets. Marsh has said it was a painful but necessary budget after voters defeated Measure X -- a 1 percent sales tax in November -- and the city needs to get its financial house in order.

2nd fire station may need to close

It would be expensive to keep Station No. 6 open. Officials say it costs $1.4 million annually to operate the station and staff it with nine firefighters. The 2014-15 budget calls for closing the station and using its nine firefighters to fill in for firefighters at the city's 10 other stations who are off work. That is expected to reduce overtime spending by $600,000. But those savings go away if Station No. 6 stays open.

The budget also calls for the nine firefighters eventually to fill the positions of nine firefighters expected to retire in July and December. But if Station No. 6 stays open, its firefighters can't fill the nine vacancies. That could mean more overtime spending or hiring more firefighters.

Marsh said even with the closure of Fire Station No. 6, the Fire Department's budget is on shaky ground and a second station may need to be closed.

The 2014-15 budget sets aside a $3 million reserve for the general fund, though Marsh said an adequate reserve would be about $15 million. Some have called for using the reserve for public safety. Marsh and Cogdill do not support that.

"The city is so much more than just police and fire, though they are extremely important," Cogdill said. "There is a lot more to running the city. A rainy-day fund is important to building up the city. This is about living within our means and moving forward."

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

Copyright 2014 - The Modesto Bee

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