Gaudenz Panholzer

Monterey Fire Chief Gaudenz Panholzer presents the city’s proposal at Monterey Peninsula Airport District’s special meeting on April 5.  

Celia Jiménez here, thinking about a drawn-out contract battle at the Monterey Regional Airport that has a little to do with the airport’s operations and a lot to do with politics. 

Over the past month, MRY’s board of directors has discussed two proposals for the airport’s fire protection service. One is from the current contractor, the Monterey Fire Department, and the other is from Pro-Tec Fire Services, a private company based in Wisconsin. The contract is for three years with the option to extend it for two more.

One big differentiating factor is price. When the board first considered these two proposals, there was a 45-percent price difference: Monterey Fire’s asking price was $3.1 million, while Pro-Tec’s was $1.7 million. MFD was later able to lower its ask, but the difference between the two proposals is still nearly $140,000 in the first year—with MFD coming in at $1.79 million versus Pro-Tec at $1.65 million. 

Other than price, the crux of the difference between the proposals seems to be that Monterey Fire proposes a shared services model, where the airport fire station is also available to respond to incidents in adjacent neighborhoods. This is how it has been since MFD took over at the airport in 2014, and the majority of calls have been off-airport. Over two years, 2021 and 2022, the engine at the airport responded to 623 calls—496 of which were off-airport (79.6 percent) and 127 of which were on-airport (20.4 percent). Pro-Tec, meanwhile, would service the airport alone.

Airport staff recommends the board pick Pro-Tec, noting that “while the city of Monterey does provide a depth of resources, the value-added services dedicated to airport support are not evident in the alternate proposal.” 

From the city of Monterey’s perspective, there’s a strong desire to keep the contract with MRY. City officials have urged community members to support MFD’s proposal. The department says response times to areas surrounding the airport would increase by three-to-five minutes if they don’t get the contract; however, even if they do, other changes at the airport (the coming construction of a new terminal) mean response times will slow down anyway. 

Public emails favoring MFD prompted a video response from MRY Executive Director Michael La Pier. He states that the city and Monterey firefighters are providing misleading information—and reiterates that providing service off-airport isn’t MRY’s responsibility, but the city’s.

Disagreement over the technicalities and price of the airport’s fire department are one thing. But underlying all of this are long-simmering tensions between the airport and adjacent cities (including Del Rey Oaks and Monterey). The airport’s staff report to the board says that if the board does choose MFD, “it should come with additional direction related to the global relationship with the city of Monterey and resolution of various matters.”

These matters include a lawsuit, resolved in Monterey’s favor and against the airport in 2022, that forces the airport back to the drawing board on a plan for the location of a new access road.

The board of the airport is a political body, elected by voters. Monterey Fire has been lobbying the public to stick with MFD as the contractor. Whether that campaign succeeds in applying pressure will be seen tomorrow when the board convenes again.

They were last scheduled to vote on April 27, but with one board member absent and one recused due to a conflict of interest, the three voting members decided to delay and wait for four to decide on this controversial matter. “They were not comfortable making [a decision] as a reduced number board,” La Pier says.

That brings us to 1:30pm tomorrow (Wednesday, May 3), when the board meets at the airport. Because it’s a continued hearing, no public comment is allowed, but expect the heat to be turned up anyway. 

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