Seaside Fire Department reorganization could eliminate the chief.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
On Feb. 16, the Seaside City Council suffered a major burn. That’s when councilmen learned the state-mandated dissolution of the Seaside Redevelopment Agency will force $880,000 in spending cuts by the end of June.
“My impression is that the council is somewhat shocked by this,” Seaside Mayor Felix Bachofner says. “Realistically, if positions are to be eliminated or furloughed, that action probably has to be taken right away.”
The news came on the same evening as a presentation by Matrix Consulting Group on potential cost savings and efficiencies within the Seaside Fire Department. “We can’t just go back to the way it used to be,” Acting City Manager Diana Ingersoll says. “This will allow us to look at the most suited structure.”
SSFD currently has an acting chief and three acting division chiefs. Matrix’s top recommendation is to eliminate the division chiefs and redistribute their duties between the fire chief, a new deputy chief and six captains, at a savings of about $205,000 per year.
But Seaside Fire Chief Steve Prelsnik, who plans to retire in June, told the council he prefers another of the study’s alternatives: to replace his own position with a public safety director. He’d also assign two division chiefs, rather than the current three, to manage the rest of the staff. If the department can also reduce overtime, he estimates his proposal could save up to $400,000.
Bachofner says he appreciates the depth of Prelsnik’s proposal, especially the suggestion to eliminate a full-time chief. “That’s what seems to be the middle ground,” he says.
Even though SSFD is tightening its belt, it hasn’t been financially hobbled like City Hall. For the past several years, most non-safety city staff have been working 10 percent fewer hours and taking a commensurate pay cut.
Ingersoll says it’s a bare-bones staffing situation: “We have gotten to the point where we are providing what we call the core function.”
With help from a federal grant that will fund three positions until spring 2013, SSFD is at full staffing with 25 full-time positions. Non-safety city staffing, however, is down more than 40 percent since 2008.
Prelsnik says he understands the need to make fire cuts. “The redevelopment impact changes the tune. We can’t go status quo,” he says. But he worries any reductions beyond his proposed reorganization would sacrifice SSFD’s ability to respond to calls 24/7.
In June 2010, the Seaside Firefighters Association rejected a proposed Peninsula-wide fire joint powers authority that staff estimated would eventually save the city $350,000 per year in command staffing alone. But after the November 2010 election, a new council majority directed city staff to maintain Seaside’s stand-alone fire department.
That decision, along with legal complications, effectively ended talk of a JPA, though Monterey’s fire department now contracts services to Carmel and Pacific Grove.
Still, the Seaside Fire Department has felt the budget squeeze. Nine positions are “acting” roles, filled by firefighters working out of their pay class without official promotions. Unionized firefighters also gave back two pay increases and holiday pay for two years, though both were restored this year.
While he doesn’t suggest resurrecting the defunct fire JPA, Prelsnik says the option to contract fire services with neighboring cities should remain on the table. But the firefighters would have to buy into it, he warns: “If there’s resistance, it’s better not to go there. You can’t force a marriage.”