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SAFER grant won and likely lost within a week

Acceptance of $2.6 million grant could be hindered by upcoming expiration of shared fire services contract between Hollister, San Juan Bautista and San Benito County.
Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo said he will not be able to hire nine firefighters if SAFER grant has to be turned down. Photo by John Chadwell.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, who is on the fire committee, said there needs to be a better understanding of the numbers before approving the contract between two cities and county. Photo by John Chadwell.

A $2.59 million federal grant to hire more Hollister firefighters might go up in smoke as officials called for more discussion on a fire contract for shared services among the local municipalities.

Currently, the Hollister Fire Department has 32 firefighters who cover all of San Benito County, including Hollister and San Juan Bautista, according to Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo. He said a total of 41 firefighters is needed to sufficiently serve the entire county. Aromas is not included in the contract, Martin Del Campo said, because it is part of a Fire Protection District within San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Even though the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant was Hollister’s to have, Martin Del Campo said it wasn’t a sure thing because of the Sept. 30 expiration of the current fire contract for shared services between Hollister, San Juan Bautista and San Benito County. He said the grant was contingent on all three agencies signing the contract, and explained that without the grant he would lack the staffing needed to continue to provide service throughout the county.

On Aug. 20, the Hollister City Council unanimously approved a resolution to accept the $2,591,108 SAFER grant. On the morning of Aug. 27, Martin Del Campo told BenitoLink by phone the grant would allow the city to hire nine more full-time firefighters.

By that night, however, following a special City Council meeting, the chief told BenitoLink he would most likely have to contact the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and decline the grant.

This is not the first time a SAFER grant has been an issue. When a three-year SAFER grant expired in 2016, Martin Del Campo warned the city if it did not receive a second SAFER grant he would have to suspend 12 reserve firefighters. On Oct. 3, 2016, he was forced to let those firefighters go. Then in November, the city approved $505,000 from general funds to hire six permanent firefighters.

In April 2017, for the lack of a motion or a second on a resolution, the council, in essence, did not allow Martin Del Campo to apply for the grant because they did not want to face another situation where firefighters would have to be let go.

This year, because San Benito County could not come up with money to hire more firefighters, the chief was authorized to apply for the grant, which he did in January. After it was announced Aug. 20 that the city had been awarded the grant, the council initially said the fire chief could accept it.

“If we don’t get the fire contract, the City of Hollister only provides support for fire protection within the city, and the staffing level I have right now will suffice for the city,” Martin Del Campo said. “At that point, I’ll have to decline the SAFER grant. As it stands right now, I have to preset our staffing in the event we do get the county contract. Once the ink is dry on the contract, then I’ll go ahead and recruit and employ nine new firefighters.”

Martin Del Campo said Aug. 27 that after the fire contract is discussed by the fire committee on Sept. 6, it will again go to the three agencies for approval. But with the council’s reluctance to agree to it during the Aug. 27 council meeting, Martin Del Campo said the chances of obtaining approval in time for the Sept. 30 deadline to accept the SAFER grant seemed slim.

Following Hollister City Manager Bill Avera’s fire contract presentation to the council, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez’s comments put the SAFER grant in jeopardy.

“When we worked this out originally it was going to be fair for all of us,” Velazquez said. “Now it’s becoming a financial burden and I’m concerned about it. We should take more time to have these conversations. A seven-year contract is a big deal, especially when we’re talking about several million dollars. I don’t think we’re ready to get to that final contract, especially when we’re hearing [the county and San Juan Bautista] balking at an annual fee that needs to be paid.”

The mayor explained to BenitoLink on Sept. 4 what he meant by “financial burden.” He said when the three agencies originally came together on a fire agreement, there would be a total of 28 firefighters, with one firefighter for 40 hours a week who would train volunteers at the San Juan Bautista station. Over time, that changed to three firefighters per shift, plus an extra person to fill in during vacations or when someone was sick, for a total of 11 people to operate the single station. He said while Hollister increased its fees per new home to cover firefighting, the county has been slow to do so and is using the fees for projects other than firefighting.

Velazquez said he was more concerned about getting the numbers right than the SAFER grant, which he said would run out in three years anyway, and if the economy experiences a downturn, which he said it would surely do, the city would face firing nine firefighters as it had to do before. He also said because of the inequity of the fees, the city was footing the nearly $1 million in overtime annually in order to serve the entire county.

During the council meeting, Avera mentioned San Juan Bautista’s inability to purchase new equipment and expressed concern that the cost would fall on Hollister. The mayor said Hollister realized several years ago it had to have a new fleet of trucks as soon as possible, and that the county and San Juan Bautista also needed to buy equipment.

“We moved on our side and they haven’t moved on their side,” Velazquez said. “We’re covering the bases for them. I want to be a partner with them, but I want to make sure that these costs are covered.”

Councilman Karson Klauer said the way the contract is written, it’s a disincentive for the county or San Juan Bautista to ever buy anything.

“If we’re expecting them to buy a hose or anything else, it’s got to be laid out in the contract,” Klauer said. “If I was them I wouldn’t buy new equipment. I don’t think they’re looking to have their own fire department. I’m not saying I agree with that, but you’ve [Avera] said a number of times we’re trying to cover for them, so everybody gets better service.”

Avera said that in 2017, San Benito County paid Hollister $1.205 million for shared services and in the next contract it would be $1.845 million, or an increase of roughly $640,000. The mayor seemed unimpressed by the numbers and insisted on continuing contract talks. (Note: Correction made. Sentence originally stated San Benito County and San Juan Bautista paid Hollister $1.205 million.) 

“My major concern is the annual fee for those new homes,” Velazquez said. “When you get 1,000 new homes, it’s going to cost something, and for us to carry that burden, it’s not the direction we should be going.”

Avera asked if the council would think it beneficial to have a joint meeting to include the two city councils and the San Benito County Board of Supervisors to discuss everyone’s concerns. Velazquez said there needed to be more conversations with the public, but only after the three agencies had a better understanding of the numbers. He said it wasn’t clear to him if they did understand the numbers.

Avera agreed that the three agencies most likely did not understand the numbers, thus the need for a meeting to hash them out and come to some sort of compromise. Avera added that from meetings he had attended with San Juan Bautista and San Benito County, he believed the two agencies thought the cost for them is already too much.

“There’s not a lot of options out there for anybody,” Avera said. “So it would behoove us to get together one time.”

The discussion fizzled out when the mayor asked Avera if he understood his directions. Avera started to joke, “As clear as—” and the mayor talked over him, asking Avera to come up with some cost figures for further discussion. There was no apparent decision on whether the meeting Avera suggested should be arranged and Martin Del Campo commented later to BenitoLink it didn’t look like the agreement would be signed in time to accept the SAFER grant.

On Sept. 4, Velazquez said: “The question is not the SAFER grant, the question is the whole contract. When we’re running $1 million in overtime, that’s $1 million we’re not using for our roads or recreation. We have to understand these numbers. We might lose the grant this year, but we might end up saving millions of dollars if we didn’t do something stupid.”

Avera said Sept. 4 by phone that he wasn’t sure what numbers the mayor was asking for because several studies have already been done to determine them. Avera wanted to be clear after speaking with officials from San Benito County and San Juan Bautista that the fire contract would be approved and Hollister would accept the SAFER grant. He said he is confident that even if Velazquez wasn’t willing to approve the contract around mid-October when it’s brought to them for a vote, he felt he could count on councilmembers Jim Gillio, Mickie Luna and Karson Klauer to do so. He is also hoping he will have a chance to talk to whoever is appointed to take Ray Friend’s council seat to bring them up to speed on the contract.

“Not everybody is going to like every aspect of the contract,” Avera said. “But we already know the costs. I can’t do anything differently than provide them with what they already have.”

Avera said even though he may try to arrange a meeting between all the parties concerned, he isn’t sure if the San Benito County Board of Supervisors or San Juan Bautista City Council want to meet.

“I got the sense the [Hollister] council didn’t want to and it’s just Ignacio,” Avera said. “I don’t know if they’ll ever sit in the same room and say what they really feel.”

 

 

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About:
John Chadwell (John Chadwell)

John Chadwell is an investigative reporter for BenitoLink. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: johnchadwell@benitolink.com.

Comments

The exact service details (number of firefighters and cost basis) should have been worked out in detail long before the deadline.  I was very unhappy with the oral report - this is a big 7 to 10 year multi-million dollar contract and we're going to do it - including buying equipment to service the county ans SJB - and we're going to do it on an oral report?

Frankly, I don;t mind helping out the county a little, but the city taxpayers need to know how much we are throwing in thr pot.  Yes, it's the political season, but let's get serious.  I have sat through meeting after meeting where they have argued about county fire staffing and overtime all because no one ever laid it out before the contract was signed.

IMHO that is not good staff work, if a baseline financial analysis exists, just tell me where it is and I'll review it in an hour, if it does not exist I hope they sit down and do one overnight.  If they can't do it overnight that means that no one really knows the numbers.

As we contracting to provide staff (3 firefighters, 24/7) or are we contracting to provide performance (X minutes response)?  There is a fundamental difference in cost.  Second, everyone knows that the county's selection for Fire Station 3, Rosa Morada Road, it the wrong place, but they are picking it for reasons that nothing to do with servicing the community.  They should agree to stage at the airport which is the right place and everyone knows it.

Marty Richman

p.s. We are proposing to buy $1 million in equipment for this operation without reimbursement, that's not peanuts.

Marty Richman 

Submitted by Barry Ashlen (Barry) on

Is this really still a major problem? Many years ago Hollister City Fire stood in front of the city/county and said said we can do it better and cheaper. City officials trashed Calfire for being the problem and unable to provide adequate services. I think we can all see now Calfire wasn't the problem. Everyone at the city and county have egg on their face. 

Why hasn't the fire service study been released to the public? It's not posted anywhere I can find. That document was supposed to lay out a real plan based on real data. It was completed months ago and we are still waiting. How much do you want to bet it shows up after a contract is signed? Why has it got to this point where everyone involved now have a proverbial gun to their heads with the loss of a safer grant? What happens in a few years when the safergant runs out? In 3 years the grant runs out. So the city of Hollister will have a 7 year window where they can't support the county? 

It's been said before and it should be the only option. They need to create a true county wide fire department. The best would probably be a special district. So it has it's own board. One that can focus on fire protection. The city and county boards have proven time and time again they are unfit to solve this problem. 

 

Submitted by (Mark Medina) on

I have a copy of the fire report and I would be glad to share it with you. Please e-mail me at medinadistrict1@gmail.com and I will e-mail you a copy. 

This is not a battle between Calfire and the Hollister Fire Department or the county and Hollister, this is about trying to find a workable, affordable, responsive, solution.  The truth is that Calfire remains the preference for wildlands coverage and unless you live in an area of heavy vegetation the real workload on our Fire Department is accidents, incidents, and medical response.  New homes - with sprinklers - and better fire resistance materials, are less likely to have a big fire and also less likely to pass them to the home next door.

Accidents and medical and contamination is what drives the responses in the city and surroundings and along the highways.  Those drivers are likely to be from the Hollister area (the center of population).  Calfire would be a good option for an Amador Plan because they are already in South County and we can't get there easily, just like they can't get to to the north east (25/156/upper Fairview) easily.  I always appreciate loyalty and pride, but this has to go way beyond who gets the job, to what's the best way to serve the population overall.  Government is there to serve the public and I believe all good fire personnel feel the same way.  If there were an easy answer we would have done it already, every option has some serious problems, hopefully we will get over those hurdles, the sooner the better.

I too am disappointed that we did not get this wrapped up much earlier, our deadline should be several months BEFORE the contract needed to be renewed. 

Marty Richman       

Submitted by Barry Ashlen (Barry) on

Marty I love your passion for everything San Benito. You really try to dive to the root from what I can tell. But I'd bet a retirement check you've never stepped foot in a Calfire Station and have no clue what they can and can't do. What they are and aren't good at. I know it feels good for everyone to think Hollister is this special place where fire protection is some how magical and only the folks down town can handle medical aids or rescues. But even an old fart like me can crack open google.

http://www.calfireslo.org

https://www.fresnocountyfire.org

https://www.buttecounty.net/fire/Home.aspx

https://www.co.merced.ca.us/BusinessDirectoryII.aspx?lngBusinessCategory...

http://www.pbcsd.org/fire_medical.html

http://cypressfire.org

http://www.rvcfire.org/Pages/default.aspx

So you're telling me a department that provides various services to 36 of the 58 counties. A department that runs 5,600 wildland fires a year. A department that collectively runs more than 350,000 medical aids, rescues, fires, hazmats, swiftwater rescues, train accidents, earthquake responses, ocean rescue and a host of others. But when it comes to San Benito county Calfire can't handle what again?? Your assumptions are lost on facts. Heck it only took me 10 minutes to use Google and locate all of the above. 

 

So with that. Again. The easy answer is a true county wide fire department or a special fire district. Where everyone pays and fire service is placed above politics. The fact that the county and city have been kicking this can down the road for this long proves it's not about what service is best. It's about politics.  We'll see you all again in 3 years when the safer grant runs out and nothing has changed. 

Sorry but the last time I checked the city and it’s residents did put fire service above politics when they overwhelming approved Measures T, E and W.  A sales tax where everyone pays. BTW Hollister is special and we value our City of Hollister Fire Department. They have always gotten the job done for us and I suspect they’ll continue. If they have challenges in the County I have confidence they will figure it out. We all live in San Benito County. Let’s support each other for a stronger community. As well I have respect for all the men and women at CALFIRE who put their lives in danger sometimes to help us right here in San Benito County. Thank you all for your service. 

Submitted by (Paul Dahlen) on

Does everyone understand the requirements of a SAFER grant for a fire department to accept? It means funding is provided for firefighter positions for 3 years, and after that the agency that accepted the SAFER grants HAS TO PROVIDE for LOCAL FUNDING to continue those positions. If the local Government does not, then the Local Government is responsible for PAYING BACK the money spent to the Federal Government. There have been many instances across the State where Local Fire Departments open positions under SAFER Grant money but when candidates hear where the funding is coming from they tend to balk at the position, knowing that if the city/county does not come up with the required funding they can lose their jobs. Hollister and San Benito County, dont get involved with a SAFER Grant, either you have the money or you don't. If you don't don't waste the time on hiring 9-12 people you will have to cut loose in 3 years.

 

Submitted by Barry Ashlen (Barry) on

"Last cycle, we ended up losing our reserves and were accused of laying off firefighters," the mayor said to Chief Bob Martin Del Campo, noting that he would not support applying for the grant again until the reserve program is built back up. "I can't support this. What's going to happen here is we're going to hire some people and we're going to get to the point where the two years are up and we can't afford it. I'd like to see us focus on the reserve program again, build that up, so you have the manpower you need. It's difficult to come up with those dollars and sustain it with all the things we need to do in this community."

 

From the paper back on 4/16/17

Submitted by John Noble on

Accepting what you wrote, what this says to me is SAFER makes sense if a department has plans and the means to grow anyway.  Essentially getting three new firefighters on for "half the money", over six years; Safer- 3yrs and the Department- next 3yrs. 

My fear is it can perpetuate the "training ground" phenom- new hires get on to get on, then bail for higher paying departments when they have a year under their belt.  How does the SAFER money work then?

Submitted by (Riane Holiday) on

is there any update on the status of the SAFER grant?

According to the Chief at last night's meeting, we have about 3 months to get going.  Last night the City Council approved the contract with the county, the contract with SJB had an error and will come back for a vote on November 19.  Assuming it passes then, we should make it (my opinion).

Marty Richman

Candidate, Hollister City Council, District 4

Leslie David's picture

Yes. There is a story in the line-up coming out soon on the SAFER grant and county fire protection.  

Leslie David, BenitoLink Executive Director

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