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Oakdale Fire Cuts Looming

POSTED March 8, 2011 11:15 p.m.

In protracted budget reductions that go on for years, such as the nation has experienced, there comes a time when there’s simply no more fat to trim, no more tricks to pull, and the reductions are found in flesh and blood.

Simply put, people lose their jobs to balance a weak and faltering bottom line.

Last fiscal year, the police force lost officers.

This year, in accordance with a 10 percent reduction directive by city administration, three Oakdale City firefighters will receive pink slips.

City Manager Steve Hallam directed all city departments to find a 10 percent reduction, much like last year, but unlike the previous year, City Fire no longer has any wiggle room in the form of retirements.

Oakdale City Fire Chief Michael Botto will go before the Oakdale City Council on Monday, March 21 with a plan to reduce their operating budget by $234,000.

“It means firefighters and a reduction in service,” Botto said plainly.

At one time, during more secure financial times, Oakdale City Fire’s operating budget rested at a healthy $3.2 million. They enjoyed a staff of 21 positions, 19 of those being firefighters, with two chief officers. They staffed two stations with a minimum of six firefighters on duty.

Today is a different story and a changed department.

“We have 16 firefighters, two part-time chief officers,” Botto said.

And, if it hadn’t been for the collaboration between Oakdale City and the neighboring rural fire district, one of the city stations would’ve been shuttered.

“Our goal has always been to keep employees in jobs,” Botto said. “And we’ve been able to do that with early retirements. We kept the stations open and engine companies staffed. There have been many concessions given by the firefighters in order to make that happen. The joint staffing has been very successful. The firefighter association reduced the minimum staffing levels and created a relief specialist position with flexible hours, which reduced our overtime budget and costs. We’ve been playing our cards and we’re out of cards to play.”

Both Botto and chief Rick Fields will go into full retirement at the end of the year and those funds will go into administration in the hopes that one of the several plans for restructure or collaboration go into effect.

Botto admits the situation is complex but he’s holding out hope as financial hardships are everywhere and joint collaboration seems to be a viable solution for many fire organizations throughout Stanislaus County.

“Right now we’re just doing projections but credit must go to the department for continuing to do more with less. It’s been a continuous challenge for the past four years but we understand we’re not in this alone,” Botto said.

Botto wants to be clear that no one in the department is saying, “Poor me.” It is what it is, as the saying goes, and there have been some unexpected positives.

“We’re becoming more efficient with services and support. We’ve discovered collectively, united we’re going to be able to provide much better service to the community. Change is constant; it’s not going to slow down or diminish. We have to give to gain and we have to maximize our limited resources,” Botto said. “There’s going to be some adjustment. But the advantage of a unified team is efficiency.”

Talks have already begun to form a central fire agency, which would serve as a hub and dispatch all the fire agencies in the county. Other options have included a contract for service with Calfire.

No matter what plan is officially adopted or pushed into motion, the change will be bittersweet, Botto admitted.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve developed and the service we provide to the community,” Botto said. “We haven’t said, ‘I give up.’ We have a roadblock and we have to figure out how to go around it. There are a lot of unknowns out there.”

If the council approves the projected reductions, the affected firefighters’ last day will be June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

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