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.”