The Tracy Rural Fire Protection District has asked the city of Tracy for the reduction, and a 2012-13 fire department budget presented at a May 15 meeting suggests the city is in step with the move.
Board members of the rural fire district, which partners with the city to provide joint coverage for the city and its surrounding areas, explained their request by saying they simply couldn’t afford three-man crews.
James Thoming, president of the rural board, said the move was not ideal but that it worked within the resources the district had.
“Three is better than two, four is better than three, but in our financial situation, two is better than none,” he said. “And that’s kind of where we are — unfortunately, that’s the economics. We can’t afford to procure three people at our stations for all of our shifts at the rate we have to procure them at.”
Despite the drop, Tracy Fire Department Division Chief David Bramell said the staffing levels at the three rural stations wouldn’t be much different than in the recent past.
Banta’s station has always had a two-person crew, he said, while Schulte Road has been a two-person crew since the middle of the past decade, and New Jerusalem’s station has been a two-person affair for a good portion of the past year.
The projected 2012-13 fiscal year budget calls for the city of Tracy to pay $8.997 million toward the department’s $15.2 million overall
budget through a prearranged formula.
Mountain House will pay $2.385 million for its single station, and the rural district is slotted to pay $3.942 million.
Final numbers won’t be approved by Tracy City Council until at least June 5, when a meeting is scheduled to review the overall 2012-13 budget. About $14 million of the overall fire department budget is dedicated to employee costs, according to budget documents.
But that arrangement still puts Tracy Rural in an untenable situation, according to rural board member Peter Reece, who suggested May 15 that the district might need to make further cuts beyond the proposed staff reductions.
“We cannot afford $3.934 million. Our income is not that high,” he said. “The way it looks to the board, we’re either going to have to close — brown out — a station … or we’ll have to have an additional source of income, because we’re stuck.”
Property taxes have declined precipitously over the past few years, according to San Joaquin County Assessor Kenneth Blakemore. For the past five years, tax revenue has declined as property values have dropped. Blakemore expects another dip in this year’s returns.
“This will be the sixth year in a row of negative assessments,” Blakemore said Tuesday, May 22.
Unlike the city, which funds its fire department through sales taxes, property taxes and other fees, the rural district relies exclusively on a share of property taxes and a 3 cents-per-square-foot assessment on structure space, said city Finance Director Zane Johnston.
Johnston and City Manager Leon Churchill said they would discuss with the rural board options for preventing
stations from being closed on a rotating basis.
“That’s Tracy Rural’s decision,” Churchill said regarding browning out a rural station. “We’re going to do our very best to support them and give them as many choices as possible. I certainly hope it can be avoided. But in the end, it’s their decision.”
One option not available, Johnston said, is the city pitching in more money than the formula allows.
“The city of Tracy cannot gift public funds, even to another public agency,” he said.
That’s also why, Johnston explained, money from the Measure E sales tax increase cannot be used to help staff rural fire stations, even though Tracy voters in 2010 passed the measure to preserve core public services.
“They didn’t pass Measure E in the county,” Johnston said.
Councilman Steve Abercrombie pointed out during the May 15 meeting that the station on Schulte Road, Station 94, is the first to respond to Redbridge, whose residents indeed helped pass Measure E.
But Johnston pointed out this week that oftentimes a city-based engine is the first to provide service to what is technically a Tracy Rural area, which balances out some of those discrepancies.
Reece said that Tracy Rural might be able to provide higher staffing levels if firefighters were willing to take heftier cuts to pay and benefits.
“We only have two choices,” he said May 15. “Lower the income of the firefighters, or close the station, and neither of them are very good results.”
Fellow board member Robert Pombo said that position was one of last resort.
“We respect firefighters,” Pombo said. “We do not want to cut their wages, but we only have so much money.”
Tracy Fire Department Capt. Dan Havicus, speaking as president of the Tracy Firefighters Association, said that it would be “unfair” to put that responsibility on the backs of first-responders.
“The city and the fire district are responsible for providing adequate fire protection,” Havicus said, though he acknowledged the fiscal straits faced by Tracy Rural. “They just can’t afford that many people. I think if they could afford it, they would have three people at those stations.”
Negotiations regarding pay and benefits between the firefighters union and city are in their final stages, according to Churchill.
“For the record, I was extremely aware, and the management team and negotiating team for the city was extremely aware, of Tracy Rural’s financial situation, and it was taken into consideration as part of labor negotiations,” he said May 15. “Doesn’t mean that we get the results that everyone desires, but we achieved the best agreement that could be done under the circumstances.”
Churchill said this week that details of the new union contract couldn’t be released, as an agreement had yet to be finalized.
During the May 15 gathering, Tracy City Council members pressed Tracy Fire Department Chief Al Nero about whether the proposed staffing levels would endanger the public or firefighters dispatched to local emergencies.
Nero stressed that the changes could be made “without having a negative effect on the safety of our firefighters.”
“I can assure you that we’ve taken that into consideration when we make those decisions,” Nero said. “… What that means is that, depending on the type of call that we go on, we’ll send an additional unit. We’ve already begun doing that.”
However, Havicus said this week that two-
person crews can’t match three-person crews when it comes to timely service.
“We strongly feel that two-person engine companies are less efficient and not as safe for the firefighters and the public,” Havicus said.
He added that the National Fire Protection Association, an organization that advocates for fire safety standards, recommends four-person engine crews.
A 2010 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology also concluded that a four-person crew delivers water to a similar-sized fire 15 percent faster than a two-person crew and 6 percent faster than a three-person crew.
That’s important to understand, Havicus said, because structure fires can double each minute they burn.
The difference can also be critical in rescue situations. For instance, he said, a two-person crew arriving at a fire would have to wait for backup, even if someone were inside the structure.
“If I pull up with three people and I know someone is possibly trapped inside, we can attempt a rescue,” Havicus said. “If both (of a two-person crew) went inside, I would have no backup.”
Nero told the City Council and rural board that at a typical structure fire, the abilities of three- and two-person engine crews would be comparable. A three-person team, he said, still must wait for backup before entering to fight the fire.
“If three firefighters show up (to a structure fire) they can’t go in, because of the two-in, two-out regulation, unless there is an immediate life safety situation, and then they can should they need to,” Nero said.
Johnston added that having two-person crews for rural stations was an on-paper reduction at this juncture, and that if people hadn’t noticed a decline in service already, they probably wouldn’t.
“They’ve had three (people per engine) on paper, only,” Johnston said, explaining that the department already had two vacant positions that had not been filled through hiring or overtime assignments. “They’re just formalizing it, and by formalizing it, they’re actually going to save a few bucks.”
Because of those vacancies,
he said, layoffs within the department would not be necessary.
Rural board members and the City Council expressed hope May 15 that eventually
three-man crews could be restored.
The sentiment was buoyed by statements from city staff that indicated more property taxes and special assessments would flow into Tracy Rural’s coffers as projects like Cordes Ranch, Tracy Hills, Ellis and the Northeast Industrial Area were developed.
“If you plan on a long-term relationship, like we do, you will understand that the roles will change in the future,” Churchill said. “When those things happen … what’s going to happen is the financial performance of the city and Tracy Rural will likely reverse.”
That could open the door for a return to three-person crews, which the fire department originally adopted, Mayor Brent Ives said, to protect both the public and first-responders.
“Absolutely, we want three people there,” Thoming said.
At a glance
• Under the proposed 2012-13 fiscal year budget slated to be approved in June, each of the four fire stations within Tracy city limits would be staffed with a minimum of three people, the three stations in the rural district outside city limits would be staffed with two people, and Mountain House’s single station would be staffed with three crew members.