Fire Department Staffing Proves to Be Hot Topic

A review of San Marino’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year strayed into some familiar and thorny territory at last week’s City Council meeting: staffing on the city’s fire engine and whether it’s advisable to reduce it.
Dr. Steven Huang, elected to the council in November, produced a 17-page proposal advocating that the city lay off three firefighters and operate its engine with three firefighters at all times, rather than the current four. He maintained that this will save the city $468,000 annually and, more importantly, free up money to reduce its $20.6 million in unfunded pension liability by $4.7 million over the next 10 years.
Other council members balked at taking such a deep fiscal bite in the department, but Huang urged them to reserve final judgment until they could review his figures and charts.
The clock is winding down on the 2016-17 budget — the council plans to approve its final version at its meeting of June 8, just before the end of the current fiscal year.
City Manager John Schaefer presented figures that pegged San Marino’s revenues at $26.4 million and its expenditures at $24.9 million, meaning the city has $1.5 million to play with beyond its core costs.
His plan at last week’s meeting offered department-by-department proposals to allocate that money, picking and choosing from the wish lists the departments have compiled over the last several weeks. The Police Department wouldn’t get the two extra officers it asked for, for example, but it would get $307,500 for new radios. Planning and Building would get $13,000 to upgrade its Geographic Information System software. Parks and Public Works was down for a $67,000 dump truck. And so it went.
When Schaefer got to the Fire Department, he presented a plan in which it would operate at times with three firefighters on the engine in an attempt to reduce overtime costs that have been spiraling ever upward.
In order to maintain that fourth man on the engine — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — means that a fill-in firefighter has to work at an overtime rate whenever a colleague is on vacation, is sick, is injured or is receiving training. That overtime piles up over time — the mayor, Dr. Allan Yung, likened it to a “bleeding sore.”
The San Marino Fire Department spent $366,771 in overtime for fiscal year 2014-15, Schaefer reported last year. The previous City Council sought to lower that. But with seven weeks remaining in the current fiscal year, the Fire Department’s overtime costs are projected to be $438,000.
Schaefer presented a proposal that would buy Fire Chief Mario Rueda a little time until an independent deployment study can be conducted. The plan would allot the Fire Department $183,000 in overtime. “Mario would burn through that in the first six months,” Schaefer said. “Then you could revisit it after the study.”
Scahefer also said he felt the elimination of three firefighters would more likely save the city $366,000 per year, rather than Huang’s figure of $468,000, and he questioned how the community might react if fire services were cut back severely so soon after citizens renewed the public safety tax in November.
As a row of firefighters stood stoically along the east wall of the council chambers, Rueda asked the council to hold off on Huang’s proposed cutbacks until he can get a deployment study completed early in the coming fiscal year. It would deal with San Marino specifically, he said, taking into account the support it gets from the Verdugo Fire Communications Center, and give council members a better sense of industry standards in terms of staffing.
“It is impossible for me to predict when the next heart attack is, when the next traffic accident is,” he said. “I suggest leaving the [staffing] the way it is now and look at it after the deployment study.”
But Yung didn’t like the idea of revisiting the overtime allocation at a later date. Speaking to Rueda, he said it was his opinion that “$183,000 is all you get for the whole year. You live with it and make yourself do it. Obviously, four is better than three. The Fire Department is insurance and we need that insurance, but it’s just a matter of how much we can afford. You may have to pick up a very difficult change in mindset. If we don’t have four, we have to go to three. I say, given them $183,000 and you don’t get another penny.”
Councilman Richard Ward said, “I don’t agree that four [on the engine] is an industry standard if 66% [of the fire agencies] in the county operate with three.”
The vice mayor, Dr. Richard Sun, raised the prospect of hiring one additional firefighter to save on all the overtime expense, but he was told by fire officials that the department can’t plug just any firefighter into a job such as captain or engineer, so overtime costs would still be incurred.
In another matter related to belt-tightening, Huang took aim at the Recreation Department. Currently, it is mandated to recover 70% of its costs for certain programs, and for this year will recover 87%, according to interim Director Cindy Collins. Huang proposes that by next year, the department boosts that recovery figure to 100%.
Part of that could be recouped by changing the definition of what constitutes a non-resident. Because the city’s recreation activities were once administered through a joint-powers agreement with the San Marino Unified School District, Collins said, anyone living within school district boundaries is allowed to pay resident’s fees for recreation programs, rather than the higher non-resident fees.
Huang proposed eliminating that provision, so that only those paying property taxes in San Marino get that break on the cost. “We were elected by the taxpayers in this city,” he said, “and we should watch out for their money.”
Councilman Steve Talt agreed that it was “a good place to start.”

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