PINOLE -- The future administration of the city's fire department remains in limbo as a newly formed City Council subcommittee studies service options and the best use of a two-year federal grant.
Ideas under study include continuing the present arrangement of sharing a chief with the neighboring Rodeo-Hercules Fire District; reverting to a stand-alone municipal fire department with its own chief; or contracting for service with Rodeo-Hercules.
The subcommittee, established Feb. 5 and made up of Mayor Debbie Long and Councilman Phil Green, will report back Feb. 19 to the full council, which could make its choice that day, or more likely March 5.
The council is pressed for time because of a 90-day deadline to hire four firefighters under a $1.24 million federal SAFER grant spread over two years that the firefighters union and many residents say should go to reopen Station 74 in the Pinole Valley, shuttered since July 2011. The 90-day period began Jan. 15, when the council accepted the grant. But Pinole officials are leery that the grant would usher in unknown future costs.
Station 74 historically generated a lot of firefighter overtime costs as a result of a minimum staffing requirement of three people per shift under the city's labor agreement with the firefighters union. Currently, with Station 74 closed, Pinole has a $227,000 annual cap on overtime, and Station 73 downtown operates mostly with four firefighters per shift, up from three.
The extra time needed to study the ramifications of the SAFER grant and reopening Station 74 was unanticipated until recently, because officials outside of the fire department apparently were not aware of the grant application until the city received word that it had been approved.
"We didn't know before December," Mayor Debbie Long said Wednesday.
City Manager Belinda Espinosa said she learned about the grant Dec. 19, when Chief Charles Hanley notified her of the grant award letter.
"I immediately notified the council and we placed it on the next available agenda in January for discussion," Espinosa said in an email Thursday.
Hanley, in an email Thursday, said: "I previously indicated that I was committed to seeking out additional revenue streams and funding sources to mitigate the impacts of the current financial crisis. In addition, the City Council asked us to turn over every rock and make a concerted effort to find ways to make programs cost neutral."
The current Pinole fire budget is $3.05 million, including shared administrative costs with Rodeo-Hercules. Reverting to a stand-alone department would require an additional $166,000 for administration.
A contract with Rodeo-Hercules would cost about $3.1 million a year and would contain an escalator clause; a draft calls for a 10-year term and a 4 percent annual escalator, but many deal points have yet to be hammered out and potential additional costs ascertained. The draft incorporates Pinole's firefighter overtime cap, which could trigger intermittent brownouts of a reopened Station 74, officials said.
Reopening Station 74 would allow Pinole to sidestep for at least another two years a contentious issue that is being talked about in some fire districts: the deployment of a two-person, quick-response vehicle for most medical emergencies, rather than firefighting apparatus staffed by three or four firefighters. The firefighters union opposes the two-person model.
The SAFER grant application spells out the goal of reopening Station 74, but the award announcement focuses on the hiring of firefighters. Hanley and the union said instituting two-person quick-response vehicles for medical calls would run counter to the intent of the grant.
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at twitter.com/tomlochner.