The pros and cons of shared services 

After 30 years of sharing a fire department with Belmont, elected officials in San Carlos earlier this year voted to dissolve the partnership, in spite of encouragement to continue such agreements from San Mateo County’s civil grand jury.

The report, released at the end of May, noted the escalating costs for San Carlos and Belmont to continue operating in the same manner.

San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura said the savings was not worthwhile for the city to continue its partnership with Belmont, a smaller community to its north.

“The [joint powers agreement] is pretty lopsided,” Moura said. “Each year, our costs go up, but because of the way the agreement is designed, we pay a larger percentage.”

When the joint powers agreement was revamped in 2006, the contribution changed from a 50-50 split to a 53 percent contribution from San Carlos and 47 percent from Belmont.

Since notifying Belmont that the partnership would dissolve at the end of 2011, San Carlos has solicited bids from San Mateo and CalFire. San Carlos is estimating a cost savings of up to $2 million per year if the city decides to contract with CalFire.

The major cost of any fire department is personnel. Fire and police generally cost over half of any community’s general fund, according to the grand jury report.

For Belmont and San Carlos to continue a joint operation, it costs a total of $3.2 million compared with San Mateo’s cost to run the Fire Department at $2 million.

But then when Burlingame and Hillsborough merged their departments in 2003, $3.4 million was saved by both cities.

Escalating costs in the cities’ budgets, however, have made it increasingly difficult to continue.

Ed Hawkins, president of the International Associations of Firefighters Union Local 2400, said mergers benefit all those involved by cutting administration and adding opportunities for employees, but San Carlos’ choice to dissolve a 30-year-old partnership may not have been the best idea.

“San Carlos doesn’t have a plan of what to do next,” he said. “They have an idea of merging with CalFire, but those numbers [for savings] are woefully inaccurate. It will cost the employees more.”

Moura said cost was the main reason San Carlos opted to end the partnership. Cost is also the reason San Carlos has outsourced its payroll accounting to a private company and is currently reviewing requests for proposals for shared services with police and parks and recreation departments. The Fire Department is being considered.

“The savings is significant,” Moura said. “If we contract all four services, we could take our $3.5 million deficit and erase it in two years without raising taxes.”

Moura said the city has cut from its $28 million budget each of the past 11 years. City officials have even tried to pass parcel taxes four times. Each failed. Sharing services is the city’s final option to cut costs.

In San Mateo County, there are 14 fire departments covering 27 communities — both incorporated and unincorporated. The civil grand jury report focused on ways to cut costs and prevent redundancy of service.

Though several communities have successfully merged or are exploring consolidations, many communities have the opportunity to cut costs, according to the report.

Redwood City Human Resources Director Bob Bell said officials are considering merging the city’s police department with San Carlos’. Such an agreement could save Redwood City as much as $600,000 each year.

Discussions have not begun on merging fire departments.

“We’re looking at all opportunities to contract out services,” Bell said. “We’re still reviewing. There is a lot of focus on this right now. It’s definitely something cities are looking at as ways to save money.”

Different sharing methods

San Mateo County has various types of fire department models.

City department
Existing city funding department out of general fund or parcel tax.

  • San Mateo Fire Department

A combination of two or more cities under one fire management, but cities retain separate identifiable firefighters and equipment; firefighters on separate labor contracts and pension plans.

  • North County Fire Authority

A combination of two or more cities under one fire management, but cities retain separate, identifiable firefighters and equipment; mutually funded by cities.

  • Central County Fire
  • Burlingame
  • Hillsborough

Contracted services
One or more cities contract with another organization for services; firefighters report to new management.

  • Coastside Fire Protection District
  • Contracted with CalFire
  • Half Moon Bay
  • Unincorporated communities

Independent jurisdiction serving multiple communities.

  • Menlo Park Fire Protection District
  • Menlo Park
  • Atherton
  • East Palo Alto

Source: San Mateo County civil grand jury report

North County Fire unites departments’ management

Ron Myers supports the consolidation of a city’s public safety services, but only to a point.

The chief of North County Fire Authority — a combined fire department for Daly City, Pacifica and Brisbane — said combining services at the top in a modified consolidation rather than a full merger has helped the departments and residents in the cities accept the changes.

“It’s hard for people to adjust,” he said. “It’s an economy of scale. Rather than make a big issue over the name on the side of the apparatus, we keep it the name of the city. We save money and we don’t create a conflict.”

North County Fire was established in 2003 between Daly City, Brisbane and Pacifica. Firetrucks and employee groups are still adorned by the name of the city in which they are stationed. Administration, however, has changed to North County Fire, chiefs and battalion chiefs consolidated.

Myers said a full merger that could change the labels on the trucks could still happen if all parties agree to it.

Discussions to create a countywide department have been going on for more than two decades, Myers said, but formal talks have yet to bring contracts. The county has consolidated 21 dispatch centers to help with efficiency in fielding emergency calls.

Rather than having to reroute calls to local jurisdictions, one dispatch center notifies the closest engine for response.

The cost, though, is the largest savings in justifying consolidation. North County Fire estimates it saves thousands of dollars annually by closing fire stations, reducing administration and firefighters over a period of three years.

North County Fire’s successes were highlighted in a report released by the San Mateo County civil grand jury last month that encouraged more cities to consider combining departments to fight budget deficits by preventing duplicate services or stations from being located less than one mile apart.

Myers said many other cities and departments have submitted inquiries about joining the county fire agreement, but nothing has come of it. He is open to additional departments consolidating.

“Other communities probably could benefit from joining,” Myers said. “We’re available if it’s something they want to do.”

Emergency cost

Combining emergency services such as fire departments can be a way for cities to save money. How much money it takes to run a department in San Mateo County:

Department cities
Cost per capita
Daly City-Pacifica-Brisbane
155,000 $148.00
Redwood City   
76,000 $219.21
San Mateo   
92,482 $206.15
South San Francisco   

Source: San Mateo County civil grand jury report

Joining forces

A civil grand jury analyzed sharing fire departments in San Mateo County.

27 Communities
14 Departments serving the Peninsula
5 Types of shared services
$3.3 million Savings in Burlingame-Hillsborough
$2 million Cost to run San Mateo’s city department
$3.2 million Cost to run shared services at Belmont-San Carlos

Source: San Mateo County civil grand jury report

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