Fire service debate heating up in San Mateo County 

A debate over regionalizing fire service in southern San Mateo County is setting up a fiery clash between the powerful local firefighters union and the county’s contracted fire department.

A county Board of Supervisors subcommittee is expected to discuss this week two concept proposals for merging fire services in a five-city area that includes San Mateo, Foster City, Belmont, San Carlos and Redwood City that would become the county’s largest fire agency.

One proposal drawn up over the last three weeks by fire brass in San Mateo and Redwood City is based on the current staffing and pay model of the cities’ firefighters, who are represented by the 37-year-old San Mateo County Local 2400.

Another proposal was prepared by the county fire department, which currently uses lower-paid, contracted firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as CalFire, to protect the rural areas near Interstate 280.

The lower salaries, combined with needing fewer CalFire firefighters because of the longer 72-hour workweek, could mean significant savings for cities.

A county report released Thursday showed the current $42.2 million cost of 18 fire stations in the five cities and unincorporated areas would drop to $27.4 million if the county trimmed staff, reduced city firefighter salaries to CalFire levels and instituted a 72-hour workweek.

While it supports the idea of consolidation, Local 2400 is staunchly opposed to the CalFire expansion, putting decision-makers in the tricky position of exploring cutting costs of the fire services that now are delivered mostly by members of one of the county’s most politically influential unions.

The fire-service debate was sparked in part by the plans to disband the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department in October over a dispute between the cities about how to share its costs.

The county fire department is considering offering to expand its service to San Carlos. But Assistant City Manager Brian Moura said Local 2400 representatives have been lobbying county supervisors to scrap that idea. The union could not be reached for comment.

“We think that’s not appropriate,” Moura said. “We think the public, the City Council, everyone should get to see that [proposal].”

A typical contracted CalFire firefighter would make a base salary of $54,010 to $65,331 and work a 72-hour workweek, which includes three days on and four days off, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

By comparison, a Redwood City or San Mateo firefighter would make a starting base salary of $75,000 to $83,000 for a 56-hour workweek with alternating days on and off.

Any changes would still be a long way off, as it’s not even clear whether the five cities are interested in ditching their own departments and joining with their neighbors.

“Everybody, I think, needs to come to the table,” San Mateo fire Chief Dan Belville said.

Custody of fire equipment up for deliberation

The 32-year-long Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department partnership appears to be heading for a breakup come this October. As with any split, the question now is ... who gets what?

It’s not yet clear how all the fire equipment will be divided. A proposal presented to the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Commission on Wednesday tentatively listed where some of the equipment from the dissolution may go. The proposal, if accepted, would have to be approved by the San Carlos and Belmont city councils.

The joint station did not have a fire dog, so there won’t be any custody hearings.

According to the proposal, two frontline and one reserve fire engine would remain in San Carlos while the same number of frontline and reserve engines would go to Belmont, said Belmont-San Carlos Fire Chief Doug Fry. The Belmont Fire Protection District and the San Carlos Fire Department consolidated power in 1979 — a move which at that time made financial sense to both cities. That no longer appears to be the case.

“Our costs have risen 30 percent in the last five years,” said Andy Klein, San Carlos vice mayor and member of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Commission. “Belmont has shown no desire to cut costs.”

San Carlos, which proposed the split in April, is currently paying about $7.1 million for its fire service — with nearly $800,000 of that coming from reserves, Klein said.

San Carlos has received fire service bids from Redwood City and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire. For the same fire service, San Carlos would spend about $6.8 million on the Redwood City deal while about $5.8 million for Cal Fire.

“We’re trying to save money,” Klein said. “The message on our side is clear.”

San Carlos residents have already twice voted down increased taxes for fire services, he said.

With two fire stations each in Belmont and San Carlos, the stations’ control will revert to the city in which they are located should the breakup occur, according to the terms of the joint powers agreement.

“All of this is still being worked out,” said Warren Lieberman of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Commission.

Lieberman added that there is “still a chance the [Belmont-San Carlos] fire department will not be dissolved,” but the likelihood of that decreases as time passes.

- Alexis Terrazas

Cost comparisons

Illustrating the cost differences between CalFire and local agencies, San Mateo County says it uses its contracted CalFire firefighters on a 72-hour workweek to provide fire service to San Carlos, an approach that is much cheaper than the $6.2 million per year the city currently pays. The county says the CalFire work schedule would allow it to use 17 staffers for the same service that 20 San Carlos staffers currently provide.

$3.8 million: 17 staffers paid at the top step of CalFire pay
$4.3 million: 20 staffers paid at the top step of CalFire pay
$5.0 million: 17 staffers with compensation frozen at current San Carlos pay
$5.7 million: 20 staffers with compensation frozen at San Carlos pay

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