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City Desk: July 29, 2015

City Council Wants to Hire More Firefighters, Without Waiting for FD Needs Assessment

City Council Wants to Hire More Firefighters, Without Waiting for FD Needs Assessment

At the July 14 Santa Clara City Council meeting, the Council voted to add two positions to the 2015-16 Fire Department budget – or, rather, they voted to put adding the positions on the next agenda to vote on; but not before the Council had a long micro-managerial discussion on whether more firefighters were needed; if so, how many; and in what positions.

The discussion started on July 7 when Santa Clara City Firefighters Local President Steve Silva asked the City Council to reconsider the number of firefighter positions that were added to the 2015-16 budget.

The Fire Department has lost 24 positions since 2008, and the current budget fills six of them – allowing the FD to put another ambulance on the street, a critical need according to Santa Clara Fire Chief Bill Kelly. Beyond that, it was a matter of strategic planning.

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“It would be easy to say, let’s just bring our staffing up to where it was,” said Kelly.

“But there’s new realities because the fire department has changed since the recession. There’s been increased growth. There’s been significant change in the EMS landscape as a result of the Affordable Care Act. It’s going to … increase the number of insured people in Santa Clara … reduce the profit margins for hospitals … increase the pressure to keep EMS costs low, and it’s going to increase the focus on mobile health care and delivery – treating people in their homes and in ambulances as opposed to just transporting people to the hospital.” One of the FD’s major activities is emergency medical calls.

At the same time, Kelly continued, there have been significant technological advances such as the new public safety radio system. All of this means that the fire department has to look at growth strategically. To that end, the FD is launching a staffing needs assessment, which the Council approved by consensus on June 15 as part of the 2015-16 budget. However, at the July 14 meeting, it seemed like this audit was news to the Council.

“I didn’t want to tell you how to do your job,” said Council Member Debi Davis. “I just really wanted to activate six more positions … I’d really rather be safe than sorry … I really wanted the six additional firefighters.”

“Are we at a point where fire insurance rates will go up because of increased risk?” asked Council Member Teresa O’Neill. The department was also undergoing an insurance audit, answered Kelly, which he believed “would, if anything, improve” Santa Clara’s fire risk rating.

City Manager Julio Fuentes, who directed the staffing needs audit, cautioned the Council against appropriating money before they knew what the actual needs were. “Governments are very dynamic … and everything’s cyclical. I don’t know how long this [boom] is going to last,” he said.

“Money growth is going to catch up with you … because [added positions] all have a multiplication effect. Your reserves at one time were $21 million. [In 2013-14] that went down to $2 million because your costs exceeded your ability to pay. Let’s not go back to that way of doing business. Let’s figure out where we need to be … and figure out how we’re going to deliver service.

“Pulling numbers out of the sky, that isn’t going to work. We really need to take a step back and do it correctly. If you do that, you’re going to be in control of your financial destiny,” Fuentes continued. “Our revenue potential is huge … [but let’s] not just pull numbers out of the sky because someone wants to add more positions.”

Fuentes’ cautions aren’t hypothetical. One example of the Council choosing the popular over the prudent were its decisions in the late 1990s and 2000 to stop requiring employee contributions to the state pension system, CalPERS, because the fund was garnering astronomical returns. When the value of CalPERS’ investments plummeted, the City faced a huge unfunded liability. That, in turn, led to huge increases in the City’s contributions to CalPERS, which continue to grow and take an increasing share of the City budget.

But prudence also dictated consistent policy across-the-board, said Council Member Lisa Gillmor.

The City’s FD was staffed at the same level as it was 20 years ago, she said. But the City now has a major sports stadium, and development projects that will bring thousands of new people into the City to live and work.

“If we’re going to do things methodically, we have to make sure our core services are keeping up. I want to be prepared when the studies come in. I want to get ahead of this and add all the positions we can. Otherwise let’s stop approving these projects. It’s really up to us to come up with a plan for our services or stop approving what we’re approving.”

Adding two FD positions would increase the budget $270,000, according to Santa Clara Finance Director Gary Ameling. If the City recognized property tax receipts in advance, two additional positions could be added. Adding all 18 frozen positions would cost $3 million. Even if all 22 positions were funded tomorrow, it takes 18 months to deploy a fully trained fire fighter. Adding in the six month needs assessment, it could be two years before new firefighters are on the job.

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