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Fire Staffing Under Review
City of Oakdale

With projected tough times on the horizon, city staff are entertaining uncomfortable choices in regards to public safety, mainly in staffing decisions related to fire services as evidenced by the public hearing held at the Monday night, June 4 Oakdale City Council meeting.

Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer provided a comprehensive presentation regarding the current issue for those who might be unclear as to how staff came to the recommended preliminary budget for 2018-19 and how complicated finding applicable solutions can be.

Whitemyer started off reminding those in attendance, “Oakdale is highly affected by the downturns in the economy … and we need to be sensitive to that” and that going forward, “we can’t just look at today, we have to look at the future.”

And that future may be dim as dwindling revenues are a certainty and attempts to reach out to the state for assistance have been rebuffed.

“The storm is coming and the state is not going to bail us out,” Whitemyer warned.

Which means Oakdale, much like every city in California, has only their own resources to solve budgetary constraints.

The General Fund balance is anticipated to decrease by $581,908 in FY 2018-19 or by 12.5 percent, which would drop the General Fund balance below the targeted 40 percent threshold, Whitemyer said.

The blame for the increase in expenditures is attributed to CalPERS pension cost increases, fire contract cost increases, election costs and Riverbank Animal Control Services.

Whitemyer addressed one of the more common suggestions to ease the strain — to invite big box chains into Oakdale, such as Target or Costco — and the bad news is, they aren’t interested in coming to Oakdale or anywhere, for that matter.

“Their business model has changed,” he said, explaining that big chain retailers are switching their focus to online distribution rather than physical locations.

“In 2007, we were simply looking at reduction in revenues but here we are looking at reduction in revenues and the absolute reality of pension cost increases,” Whitemyer said.

With everyone clamoring for a piece of the pie, it’s not a surprise that discussions are bound to get heated but concerns for public safety seem to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, particularly with the rise of burglary, theft, and drug-related crimes in the residential areas, such as Bridle Ridge and the Vineyard subdivisions.

Although continued discussion is warranted and scheduled for the following council meeting on June 18, currently, recommendations from staff include reducing fire personnel from three to two at each station, which, according to fire personnel, puts both the community and firefighters at risk.

However, the sole reason Oakdale was able to fund three additional fire positions was due to the application of the Fire SAFER grant, which has since expired and Oakdale did not qualify for an extension or reapplication, placing the burden of those positions squarely in Oakdale’s lap for the foreseeable future at a cost of $505,000.

Proposals to split the costs with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District have been turned down due to similar budget constraints facing the neighboring fire district.

Brian Rice, President of the California Professional Firefighters, and a 30-year firefighter veteran, addressed the council with the suggestion of consolidating all fire services within Stanislaus County to improve services and spread resources but at the very least, said, “Make an appointment and give them an hour of your time to explain what firefighters do and what the needs are so you can make the best decision possible for your community.”

He added, “Base your information on what they say. Budgets can be moved around.”

Oakdale City Fire Chief Mike Botto said he was “troubled and concerned” by the proposed action plan regarding fire service but believed, “there’s a solution out there but it will be by compromising by all parties.”

Botto made alternative suggestions that were taken under advisement by council with a plan to discuss the possibilities further.

Resident Brandon Baley, an Alameda County firefighter who lives in Oakdale, addressed the council, saying, “As a citizen of Oakdale, we have an expectation of our fire department and our police force at the same time. I don’t think cutting staffing should be an option or a responsible decision made when it comes to the budget.”

Council member J.R. McCarty assured the assembled, “We all believe in public safety as a top priority. We don’t want to see any cuts to any position” but council is aware that tough times call for tough decisions.

However, Whitemyer said, “I would echo the sentiment that our goal is to have 3-0 staffing at every engine (station), that’s what we want and it’s going to be a challenge to get there but I’m committed to trying to find a way … I look forward to continued dialog as we go forward.”