As firefighters leaned against the back wall in the capacity-filled Hollister City Council chambers on Oct. 17, their chief, Bob Martin Del Campo, gave a brief update on the status of overtime pay and then got to the task at hand—asking the council to approve a resolution to hire six permanent fulltime firefighters.
Del Campo said six more firefighters would help decrease the amount of overtime in his department. The council unanimously approved the resolution, giving Del Campo the authority to augment the fire department with the six firefighters.
In addition, the resolution authorized the administrative services director to amend the FY 2016/17 budget in the amount of $505,000. The adjustment to the fire department’s overtime budget was estimated at $165,000.
Tim Burns, who is running for City Council District 4 to fill the seat of departing Councilman Victor Gomez, brought up the question of how the reduction of 12 firefighters would impact response times.
“Clearly, this is a new bridge and I’m not convinced it’s a permanent solution, but it certainly is a solution that will buy some time, and I encourage you to move forward and support the chief and the city manager’s request,” he said. “We’ll be better tomorrow than we are today, but we won’t be as good as we were when we had those 12 firefighters.”
Burns went on to ask how the simultaneous increase and decrease of six firefighters will impact homeowners’ fire insurance and the fire rating for the city.
“The most important thing I’d like to know is what the chief’s anticipation is for his staff’s safety,” he said. “I’ve heard him speak at least on two occasions where he’s concerned about the fatigue that could rise from a lessor staff that what was once there.”
Gomez said he realized there has been concern in the community about the number of firefighters. He said he wanted to make it clear that the firefighters who were released from duty were only on staff because of a grant.
“We did not take action to fire these people; we did not take action to permanently hire these 12 firefighters,” he said. “The way I look at it is, compared to years past, especially years when I was on the council in 2009 and 2010, when we had some brownouts, we had trucks that weren’t even being used. Today, with these six firefighters being added, it’s a way better scenario than in 2009. I don’t see it as a loss of 12, I see it an addition of six.”
He said that as a father of three children, he believes prompt response times are important and he didn’t see any concern with the plan to hire more fire fighters, which he called a bonus for the community.
Councilwoman Mickie Luna thanked Chief Del Campo for consistently coming before the city council and not giving up, whether there was or was not a grant, and putting the safety of the community first.
“I’m hoping that in the future that people take into consideration that other agencies, whether state of federal, look at the City of Hollister and knowing that there is a need to continue the safety of this community.” she said.
Councilman Raymond Friend reminded everyone that in 2015 when the city received the SAFER grant, it hired the 12 firefighters as reserves. He said the department had 28 firefighters who were serving Hollister, the county and San Juan Bautista.
“We’re now back to 28 and are going to possibly increase it up to 36, and the chief has assured us with this plan it is going to increase the coverage in the county and the city. It’s not going to decrease by six,” he said. “By his diligence, he has worked out a plan where he’s going to have three firemen on a rig. There’s been times when that wasn’t possible without calling out a reserve or someone on overtime.”
Friend said he thinks the plan is good and agreed with Burns that the city needs to think long-term.
“We can’t live on grants,” he said. “Grants are great. They buy us a lot of equipment, but we need to get serious about what kind of fire protection we want in the city.”
Councilman Karson Klauer asked, somewhat rhetorically, if the chief had the overtime worked out. Del Campo said that $165,000 had been allocated to make sure that the overtime budget would not be surpassed, but qualified his comment by stating he hoped workers’ comp or unplanned events would not affect the amount.
“It was increased to meet the needs going forward from this date—not the whole year—but this date to the end of the fiscal year,” Del Campo said.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said that by building a partnership with the county and San Juan Bautista, a stronger team could provide emergency response coverage countywide. He said if his family is in an accident on Highway 156, he doesn’t care if help is coming from Hollister or San Juan Bautista. All he wants is the best service, he said.
“We have to continue that partnership and if we want to a point where we really want good service throughout the county, we need to have that as a permanent partnership, because we can’t do it without it,” Velazquez said. “With the grant we were lucky, but we knew at the time it was a grant for two years — maybe four years. Everyone was clear at that time that 12 of these reserves were going to be lucky enough to be full-time firefighters for at least two years. Unfortunately, the grant expired, but we do have a good plan, and by having that partnership we’re able to have 36 firefighters and not 21.”
Velazquez addressed Burns’ concern about the fire rating, stating that it has decreased countywide because of the partnership. Then he expanded the topic to include taxes.
“Sometimes we have a hard time with taxes, and we don’t want to pay anymore,” he said. “Well, guess what, you’re paying less on your fire insurance because of the partnership. These things do cost money and we have to stay together as a community and realize it’s extremely important that we have a fire department that can address problems not only throughout the city, but throughout the county.”
On Oct. 18, City Manager Bill Avera told BenitoLink that the $505,000 will be a one-time transfer from the approximately $5.3 million in the general fund reserves that will be deposited into the account for the fire department’s operating budget. He said the money is not being taken away from any other programs, such as parks or police, but is essentially transferring money from a savinsg account into a checking account to pay a specific bill.
Avera said beyond FY 2016-17, the six firefighters will be paid through revenues and not the general fund.
“We have debt that belongs to the general fund, and because we’ve been paying it off and won’t have it anymore, this allows us to go ahead and hire some people,” he said. “They will be funded through revenues that are generated throughout the year.”
Avera said revenues from the one cent tax Measure E will continue to provide the cushion to keep the six firefighters for another two years — through 2018 — but if Measure W, which would extend the sales tax 20 years, fails to pass in November, things may change in a serious way.
“If Measure W doesn’t go through, all bets are off and everything changes,” Avera said, explaining why the city is pushing Measure W two years early is so it can continue to plan ahead. “If Measure W fails, we will have time to prepare for probably two special elections. Those are when we go out really hard and talk about the services that will be cut in the event that Measure E goes away. When you have a $20-million budget and you take $5 million away, that is a substantial amount of money. Six firefighters are $505,000. Multiply that by 10, and that’s how many things are going to be affected when you don’t have Measure E around.”
Avera said that if the Measure E funds do disappear, the effect on the city would be significant.
“We went through an austerity plan in the past, and when you start looking at what has to be cut out of the budget to obtain a balanced budget, it’s huge,” he said.
For the critics who claim city officials should never have applied for the SAFER grant, Avera said it would be silly not to go after grants.
“The police department applies for grants all the time,” he said. “Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not. We have three school resource officers who started on grants. We don’t have those grants anymore, but we’re keeping those officers because they’re important to have, and why not hire people and use other people’s money to help us provide the services that we need? If somebody is going to give Hollister $2 million over a two-year period to hire people, that’s a great deal for us because not only do we get to use those people, we’re not paying them. They’re probably spending their money in town and it’s re-circulated over and over again. That’s why you do it.”