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Budget Woes - Firefighters Take City Hit
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Despite warnings of inadequate service levels by its line personnel, a plea from its past long-term fire chief, an administrative advisement by the current command staff against future cuts, and going against a recent $32,000 fire study by the city on fire department staffing, the Oakdale City Council accepted City Manager Bryan Whitemyer’s recommendation by a vote of 4-1 to lay off two firefighters at the end of the calendar year.

The move brings the city’s firefighting crew to only 12 that at one time was as high as 22 members less than five years ago.

“We may only be able to send firefighters to be able to throw water on a fire,” said Whitemyer after being advised by some current firefighters how reduced staffing levels would affect resident safety and emergency response. “We may have to take a step backward.”

Whitemyer explained that he had to look at “the whole picture” when it came to city finances and looking to the future of revenue when the Measure O half-percent sales tax expires in March 2015.

“I wish we had another choice,” said Whitemyer, agreeing that the firefighters had legitimate concerns. “I hate to do it, but I don’t see how I can’t.”

As with previous meetings regarding the budget, Whitemyer presented the council and audience with bleak figures surrounding revenues and an increase in upcoming expenses, including an anticipated $1.6 million rise in pension costs over the next six years.

The budget adopted by the city in June avoided firefighter cuts and still saved $540,000 for the General Fund.

“We hoped it would get us through the year,” said Whitemyer on the previous cuts that included keeping two police officer positions unfilled. “We need to get our expenditures in line with our revenues.”

Oakdale Firefighters Association President Dave Peterson addressed the council, stating he had been working on a number of options with city staff that amounted to a $220,000 savings including having members pay more of their retirement costs, cutting some operational costs and equipment replacement.

The department, which now covers over 250 square miles under its multi-agency agreement, responded to over 2400 calls for service last year, 1981 of which were in the city limits.

Peterson pointed out that the proposed cuts would bring in additional overtime expenses or, if the city chose the other option, ‘brown outs’ of one of the fire stations.

“Small one-bedroom fires will now become larger,” Peterson said. “We won’t have the required number of firefighters to operate the apparatus.”

According to Whitemyer, one of the unexpected rises in the fire department’s current budget was a surge in overtime costs.

Peterson and Councilman Farrell Jackson, the lone dissenting vote of Monday night’s meeting, had predicted the rise when discussing public safety cuts during preliminary budget discussions in April 2013.

Retired Modesto firefighter Don Lyman, who sits on the Measure O Oversight Committee, told the dais that the committee had declared public safety as the priority for the funds as well as campaign promises that the measure was passed on the belief that current staffing levels would be maintained.

City resident Mike Hancock asked the city not to make decisions to save the positions that would later bring the city “into the chaos of bankruptcy.” Hancock suggested that the fire department look into alternatives in their operation suggesting that emergency medical responses be revised to where only ambulance personnel responded.

In the early 1970s, fire departments statewide shifted to include emergency medical response to include first response, basic life support, and advanced life support as part of their missions and operation.

The suggestion brought a counterpoint response from the professional firefighters, whose calls were 65 percent emergency medical calls.

During council discussion, Councilman Mile Brennan said his focus was to avoid the city going into bankruptcy.

“I was elected to not ignore the future, Brennan said. “Bankruptcy is the path if we ignore the signs.”

Jackson made it clear he wanted public safety levels maintained as Measure O was presented to the public and that the council had set goals about police and fire services.

“If public safety is our priority,” Jackson asked, “why aren’t we taking money from elsewhere and applying it to public safety?”

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Councilman Tom Dunlop, pointing out that the city had “burnt through” $4.6 million in reserves, but also described having only 12 firefighters as not adequate. “For now we need a conservative outlook in case Oakdale doesn’t consolidate.”

The city and Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District earlier this year decided to explore consolidation where the fire district would absorb Oakdale’s fire protection needs and personnel. If the move goes forward, the merger is expected at the beginning of 2014.

“Depending on the method of the consolidation, we could save those positions,” Whitemyer said after the meeting. “Without the consolidation, we’ll have to eliminate those two positions.”

During the meeting the council also voted to move forward with the ordinance that would require a permit for drinking alcohol in city parks. The ordinance would give Police Chief Lester Jenkins, or his designee, the authority to issue the permits.