The San Juan Bautista City Council this week reviewed its proposed extension of its contract with the city of Hollister for fire services while putting off discussion of a possible reversal of its ban on marijuana dispensaries until Nov. 17.
The council for 90 minutes examined the contract word by word, line by line, stopping occasionally to ask Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo or Division Chief Leo Alvarez for clarification on terminology or semantics of the document.
Councilman Chris Martorana questioned the need for 270 days required for termination of the contract rather than the 180 days the city thought might be appropriate, as well as a need for a statement covering non-performance, which is not in the contract. He asked Del Campo for clarification.
“It gives you guys six months in the event you want to pull out of the contract,” Del Campo said. “Two hundred seventy was a cushion in case somewhere you find a pot of gold and you want to have your own department.”
Del Campo also said he couldn’t see any problems if the timeframe were shortened to 180 days. Martorana said he thought 180 days was more reasonable. He also questioned Del Campo about staffing and training levels as spelled out in the contract.
“We’ve been told that the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) Grant, for instance, is going to be terminating at some point and that will obviously have a major effect on the overall staffing of the department,” Martorana said. “I gather from (Hollister) Mayor (Ignacio) Velazquez that you’ve been working on a plan that in foreseeing that change maybe you can give us a picture of what that would look like for us.”
Del Campo said even if the grant should go away he does not intend to drop staffing levels.
“My first intention is going to be some form of appropriations of the budget so I can maintain staffing levels,” he said. “There’s going to be a period where we may lose the grant, but the city is going to cover the cost of the employees for two to four months. I can’t speak for the finance director or the city manager, but that’s the intent. If that fails, and I hate to say this, but we’d have to go for a public safety tax to keep the funding stream to keep that force working. We’re going to have to reconfigure our staffing matrix where maybe I have to pull people in on overtime. I do not want to drop the staffing levels we have right now.”
He said he will continue to provide as much service as he can with the personnel he has, including reserve firefighters.
“I’m going to fight for the funding stream to keep the people employed, whether we get the grant or not,” Del Campo said.
Martorana said he was concerned that there might come a time that the San Juan Bautista fire station does not have professional firefighters and that the structure of the reserve program doesn’t allow them to be first responders without the professionals, essentially rendering the station ineffective.
“I believe the local reserves are critically important for the protection of this community,” he said. “My concern is there may be stipulations in the fire fighters’ union contract that conflicts with the reserve program being able to man, staff, drive without the professional firefighters in attendance.”
“If I have to go to the overtime roster to fill, I’m going to have to do that,” Del Campo said. “If the costs start rising for the city, I’ve got a binding contract that I’ve got to provide service to the west end of San Benito County, and that’s going to put me under the gun. I’m willing to do that.”
Martorana said he didn’t see a need to have professional firefighters.
“We had 150 years of reserve firefighters staffing this place and our community is comfortable with that,” he said. “This is not an issue for us, but for you guys, from a legal standpoint, an operational standpoint, and management standpoint for the city, is that acceptable? We’d like to see something in here that says that we’re going to have staffing 24/7, and we don’t care who it is.”
Martorana asked Del Campo if he would be comfortable with an addition to the contract about minimum staffing. Del Campo answered that he would be uncomfortable with the addition, stating that he would not want to make staffing determinations driven by a contract, but rather by the needs of the community.
After repeated assurances from Del Campo and Division Chief Leo Alvarez that they would be looking after the best interests of San Juan Bautista, no matter what the funding or staffing issues were, Councilman Tony Boch deadpanned, “I get the feeling now that we can trust these guys.”
“You guys are OK,” Mayor Robert Lund quipped. “We’ll let you make the judgment of staffing.”
Vice Mayor Rick Edged raised a question about which city would be responsible for matching funds regarding future grants.
Del Campo said that before he can accept a grant, he must ask the city council if it is willing to add the required percentage in order to get the grant. He assured the San Juan Bautista council that he would not apply for any grants without their prior knowledge.
Mayor Edge asked if San Juan were to come up with the matching funds would a fire engine, or whatever the grant covered, belong to the city.
“I think we should just drop the borders and use it where it’s needed,” Del Campo said. “If you need it here, I would probably want it stationed here. This is one of those things we’re going to have to work through unchartered waters. I would feel more comfortable accepting the responsibility of knowing that a piece of equipment needed here (San Juan), that we apply for the grant and we come up with the funds. If I need to put it in service out here, I’ll do that.”
“We’re only 1,005 people in this town and out budget is this small,” Edge said as he held up two fingers. “This is the best we could do to for good coverage this side of the county. We’ve quadrupled the protection in this side of the county in the last two years. We’re becoming a role model for other counties to look into to do the same thing.”
Andy Moore, a former San Juan councilman and mayor got up to add his support.
“I was totally in favor of this from day one,” he said. “It’s a great program, but what worries me is if the SAFER Grant runs out, what is going to happen to the city? Where I want to see the council and the chief go, this is supposed to be a reserve-driven station when we met with Hollister and the county. What happens when the SAFER Grant goes away? Are we going to have full-time people here? I don’t think the city will want that bill. I want to see the reserve program come back, so if it does break apart in three years where we can’t afford it, if we have reserves who are onboard who are qualified for the city. That’s the only reservation that I have. But it’s a great deal for the city. Go for it. I’m very impressed.”
“I pretty much got a promise that we were headed in that direction to make sure they’re (reserves) all qualified,” Edge said to assure Moore.
“It’s what keeps me up at three o’clock in the morning,” Del Campo interjected. “I’ve got a great bunch of men and women on staff and I want to keep them employed because of these contractual agreements we have with this community. You deserve it. You’re paying the taxes that provide the service and if it takes me to the podium in the other city (Hollister) asking why the overtime has spiked, I’m willing to take that hit. I do not want a drop in service and staffing levels.”
Edge concluded by saying that the entire fire-fighting budget for the city once was approximately $23,000.
“Now we’re up around $300,000 that we’re spending on this protection,” he said. “I’ve got to thank this council for their good ideas and that’s why we’re at where we are today. I appreciate the captains and firefighters who came out to answer our questions and make this thing work. I think we’ve got a good contract and we’ll get this printed out, and get it signed.”
After the corrections and additions are made, the contract will be given to Hollister for review. If approved, it will be signed and added as an agenda item for San Juan Bautista's Nov. 17 council meeting.