Dousing the Flames
Peninsula city managers make the case for a fire merger.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
The proposed Monterey Peninsula Regional Fire Consolidation needs to be supported and approved. It is a sound proposal and compares favorably with all of the other alternatives that have been suggested.
Here’s how it would work: The cities of Seaside, Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel-by-the Sea would form a Joint Powers Authority, a public entity created by agreement by two or more public agencies as provided for in state law. Del Rey Oaks and Sand City would contract with the JPA. Each city would be represented with one vote on the JPA board. Other cities and jurisdictions would be able to join at their request.
Everyone knows the dire financial conditions local governments are experiencing throughout California. Local revenue decreases, some as high as 30 percent, have severely hurt Peninsula cities’ abilities to provide services.
The current costs of fire services in each of the cities in the proposed merger is a significant part of their general funds – in most cases the second-largest service expense: Seaside, $4.5 million (25 percent); Monterey, $11.8 million (21 percent); Pacific Grove, $3 million (20 percent); Carmel-by-the-Sea, $2 million (17 percent).
The proposed consolidation will save cities more than $900,000 in the first year alone: Seaside will save $350,000; Monterey, $340,000; and Pacific Grove, $217,000. (Carmel-by-the-Sea has already realized savings through its contract with Monterey.) Such savings will help allow all six cities to maintain other core services for their communities in an era of shrinking revenues.
There are three steps to a fully operational consolidated fire service. Phase One provides for a single fire chief for the participating cities. Phase Two will consolidate the headquarter command functions and reduce administrative duplication by taking advantage of expected retirements and attrition. Phase Three will consolidate all fire operations.
Each phase requires the unanimous approval of all cities. This ensures proper checks and balances and addresses each city’s concerns before moving to the next phase. The first phase will take at least a year to achieve. The second phase can take another year, and the third phase at least two years.
THE MERGER WOULD SAVE MORE THAN $900,000 ANNUALLY.
The cities expect to take action later this year after addressing questions that have been raised and holding public meetings. Seaside is in a position to take leadership and be the first city to approve the JPA’s first phase.
There are a large number of successful fire consolidations throughout California, from Orange County to the San Francisco Bay Area, and a soon-to-be-approved local consolidation of Monterey County Regional Fire District with Carmel Valley Fire District. Still more are being developed.
There is resistance to the current proposal from two primary groups. First, some residents perceive that they will lose control of their local fire departments. Second, some firefighters are concerned about autonomy and job security.
The Seaside Firefighters have opposed the JPA, while the Seaside Public Safety Managers Association supports it. All the other unions involved have actively supported the consolidation. Arguments against consolidation do not make any sense in a time of severe cutbacks and layoffs when the consolidation could save nearly $1 million a year across the Peninsula.
No city will lose its local fire department through the creation of the JPA. The firefighters will still be local employees, policies will still be approved by each city’s representatives, and services will demonstrably improve. Seaside, for example, will have better coverage on its southern boundary, with improved response times.
The facts and data clearly support a consolidated fire service. In a recent independent staffing and management study of the Seaside Fire Department, it was recommended that Seaside continue its efforts with the city of Monterey and expand them to include discussions about forming a regional partnership for fire protection and EMS services on the Peninsula.
There are very good reasons to consolidate fire services: fiscal responsibility and sustainability; the ability to maintain and improve services; local control of decisions and oversight of costs; and enhanced opportunity for other shared services. But the most important reason is the value that would be realized by our citizens and taxpayers. It is our mission to provide the best services we can to our communities with responsible stewardship of public assets and resources. That is the value they expect and deserve.
We need to deliver that result by approving this proposal now.