By Tom Lochner

Staff Writer

Cuts to administrator jobs in the Pinole Fire Department threaten the existence of Battalion 7, a team of six fire stations in three agencies that functions as one department for a large chunk of West Contra Costa, some fire officials warn.

Pinole's assistant fire chief and fire administrative secretary positions would be eliminated in the latest round of budget-cutting endorsed in principle by the City Council at a special workshop last week on the 2009-10 budget. Eliminating the equivalent of 11 full-time positions citywide would save about $935,000, including $380,000 for the general fund, officials estimate. Among the casualties are Community Development Director Mary Roberts and Assistant Fire Chief Ron Gesner. The city continues to negotiate with its unions, including Firefighters Local 1230, for concessions. The budget will go before the City Council for approval July 21.

Battalion 7 consists of Pinole's two fire stations; the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District's two stations; and the Contra Costa Fire District's San Pablo and El Sobrante stations.

"It's a unique configuration, driven out of necessity," said county fire Battalion Chief Steve Maiero. "When the bell goes off, we act as one department."

The three agencies rotate the duty officer for the entire battalion, 24 hours on call. Gesner and Pinole fire Chief Jim Parrott share that duty for Pinole 10 or 11 days a month.

Rodeo-Hercules Battalion Chief Alan Biagi said that in small departments like his and Pinole's, the top administrators are themselves firefighters, not bureaucrats.

"Ron (Gesner) is 'boots-on-the-ground,' " Biagi said. "He's their (Pinole's) training officer, their safety guy, their operations guy and the go-to guy for the captains.

"Jim (Parrott) losing Ron makes that which we've been doing less sustainable," Biagi said, explaining that in the long term, one person cannot be duty officer for the entire battalion one of third of the time as well as a full-time fire chief, with the secretary's workload added on.

The staff report to the budget workshop notes, "The other participating jurisdictions may question their ongoing support of our service call response needs."

"We don't want to say the sky is going to fall," Parrott said, "but the entire county operates with a prearranged response configuration.

"We're not disputing that we have to have cuts. We just want the community to understand the ramifications of these cuts."

City Manager Belinda Espinosa was not in the office Thursday or Friday and could not be reached.

A simultaneous blow to Battalion 7 is the cutoff of San Pablo's current $58,000-a-month subsidy to the county fire district, which works out to $700,000 a year. That subsidy has paid for a fourth crew member at San Pablo-based Engine 70 since October. The fourth crew member allows a single fire crew in many instances to attack a fire more quickly.

That $700,000 is not in San Pablo's 2009-10 budget, so Engine 70 would revert to a three-person crew in July unless money for a fourth firefighter is found; several San Pablo council members suggested raising the city's utility tax, currently 4 percent, up to or near the voter-authorized 7 percent; each percent raises about $300,000 a year.

County officials have argued in the past that San Pablo gets fire and emergency medical services on the cheap, because much of the property tax money generated in San Pablo that normally would go to the county fire district is captured by San Pablo's redevelopment agency.

"We spend (many) times what San Pablo pays for fire protection," Parrott told the San Pablo City Council last week.

San Pablo City Manager Brock Arner, without elaborating, said "it's a broader, more complex issue."

Station 70 in San Pablo is the busiest in the county, said county fire Chief Mike Richter. Although San Pablo and its surroundings account for a disproportionate share of Battalion 7's calls, even so, the battalion arrangement benefits the three agencies, Parrott, Biagi and Maiero agreed.

"The configuration provides good coverage and good service," Maiero said. "It maximizes the resources and creates some degree of flexibility among the three agencies.

"It's hard to to take certain pieces out of a jigsaw puzzle."

If Battalion 7 collapses, Pinole and Rodeo-Hercules might go back to a mutual-aid arrangement they worked under until Battalion 7 was created in 2000, Biagi said, or else one or both agencies could end up farming out administrative functions to another fire agency.

A merger into the county fire district is another possibility officials have discussed in the past.

Reach Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or tlochner@bayareanewsgroup.com.