Six Calif. City Firefighters Face Ax as SAFER Grant Runs Out

Several dozen firefighters and their family members, wearing bright yellow shirts with “Save Our Firefighters” printed on the front, attended the Ceres City Council meeting Monday night to show their support for six firefighters who stand to lose their jobs next month.

The six positions will be eliminated when the federal grant that funds them expires Sept. 21.

During a meeting in July, the council discussed potentially sustaining the positions during the grant application process. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which awards the SAFER grant, has not opened the application process.

With no decision date in sight, the council doesn’t know how much money is needed to bridge the gap. City Manager Toby Wells said the six firefighters cost about $45,000 a month.

Time frames for the grant process vary, but Wells said the city learned four months after applying that it would receive the last grant.

With the grant, three of Ceres’ four fire stations have three-person crews. The other has two-person crews.

If the positions are lost next month, the City Council will have to consider what to do.

The issue was not on the council agenda Monday, but several firefighters spoke on it during public comment.

Wells and Acting Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes have not presented the council with options because they want to wait as long as possible for the grant application process to open. But there are a few options if the positions are to be eliminated, including closing or browning out a station or returning to two-person crews at three of the stations, which was where staffing levels were before the grant in 2012.

“If they brown out a station, then response times will suffer. If they drop staffing at two of the stations, then the essential tasks that are needed at a fire will take longer,” Capt. Eric Holly, the firefighter union’s president, said prior to the meeting. “In both cases, safety is going to decrease for the firefighters and citizens.”

For example, he said, if a two-person engine arrives first at a house fire where someone needs to be rescued, it will have to wait for the second engine to arrive before the rescue can be executed. Two firefighters are needed to enter the house for the rescue while a third must operate the engine.

“If there’s one firefighter inside a house searching and pulling fire hose with them and they also find someone who needs to be rescued, I’m not going to say it’s physically impossible, but it’s physically improbable that they can do both,” Holly said.

He and the union argue that the city shouldn’t be in this predicament to begin with. Under the original Measure H expenditure plan created in 2008, the department should have reached the goal of three firefighters at all four stations this year.

“We were very specific when we were out politicking for this fund,” firefighter Billy Finley said to the council. “We made lots of promises based on the facts that we had about how the money was going to be spent, and what we have seen is a deviation from that original plan over and over again, and it has been compounded over the last two years.”

Measure H, a half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2007 to increase police and fire protection, has been used to add three, rather than 12, firefighters since its inception.

But Wells said the original expenditure plan was created at the peak of the market. Year after year, revenues have fallen short of projections, and the plan has been revised half a dozen times since, he said.

In 2012, the city started using the fund to maintain police and fire staffing levels and help pay for overtime to ease general fund expenditures.

From 2008 to the present, the original projections estimated $16.3 million in revenue, but the city has received $13.2 million.

Anticipating that the economy would not recover enough to retain any of the six grant-funded firefighters, the city in 2012 signed an agreement with the union stating as much.

Under the ordinance that governs Measure H, revenues must “supplement rather than supplant existing city expenditures for public safety.”

Wells said using Measure H funding to maintain existing positions and pay for overtime is supplementing because the percentage of the general fund budget spent on public safety has not dropped to less than 2007 levels, the year the ordinance was passed.

Finley sees it differently and told the council: “I just encourage you guys to right the wrongs that have been done in regard to measure H because we should be in a much better position at this point. … We are taking a huge step backward, and it puts our firefighters at risk and our citizens at risk,” he said.

Mayor Chris Vierra responded: “I wish we had a money pot that we could draw from. This body is trying to do everything that we can to keep as many people employed, give everyone (back) the concessions that they were so kind to give us, but it’s like I tell my kids: ‘If I have $1, I can’t spend $1.10; it just doesn’t work.’ I don’t want the impression that we are here blindly cutting staff, and it’s unfair to paint us in that light.”

Wells will present options regarding the six positions to the City Council at its next meeting, on Sept. 8.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or . Follow her on Twitter @ModestoBeeCrime.

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