PINOLE -- After several years of talks and months of study, the city has opted to continue to manage its own municipal fire department, forgoing a service contract with the neighboring Rodeo-Hercules Fire District that City Council members praised before rejecting it for cost reasons.
"Merging would be a benefit, but can we afford it?" Mayor Debbie Long said Tuesday.
"It's a great proposal, but the numbers don't work for me," said Councilman Peter Murray, referring to a five-year service contract offer from Rodeo-Hercules for $3,276,000 the first year, or about $450,000 more than Pinole's cost estimate for a self-managed municipal department.
The proposed contract was for $300,000 less than an earlier proposal, after the two agencies' shared fire chief, Charles Hanley, dropped the price just in time for Tuesday night's council meeting.
The vote for continuing a Pinole-managed fire department was 4-1, with Councilman Phil Green dissenting. Green argued that a contract with Rodeo-Hercules would deliver better service while protecting Pinole by controlling costs.
The Contra Costa Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees the formation of special districts and annexations to existing districts in the county, has argued for years that some fire departments, among them Pinole and East Contra Costa Fire, are unsustainable in the long run, and urged exploration of alternative service models such as consolidation or contracting with other departments.
Many Pinole residents cherish the idea of local control of their own fire department, but others say the notion of a stand-alone, self-sufficient municipal fire department today is more a matter of romantic nostalgia than reality.
Pinole, along with Rodeo-Hercules and the Contra Costa Fire District's El Sobrante and San Pablo stations, constitute the three-agency Battalion 7, which, from an operational standpoint, functions as a de facto single fire department.
Administratively, however, the three agencies are governed by separate boards: the Pinole City Council, the county board of supervisors, and the elected Rodeo-Hercules board.
Pinole and Rodeo-Hercules have a shared fire chief in Charles Hanley.
Battalion 7 once had six stations, but two have closed: the Pinole Valley station and the Rodeo station.
Under a contract with Rodeo-Hercules, Pinole firefighters would become Rodeo-Hercules firefighters.
One factor in the cost of a contract with Rodeo-Hercules is the higher cost of retirement benefits. Pinole is part of the California Public Employees Retirement System, and Rodeo-Hercules is part of the Contra Costa County Employees Retirement Association, as is Contra Costa Fire. But because Rodeo-Hercules is the only agency in the latter system with a 2-percent-at-50 retirement formula -- Contra Costa Fire's is 3-percent-at-50 -- Rodeo-Hercules does not enjoy a lowering of rates that a large retirement pool would confer. The formulas refer to the percentage of salary retirees receive for each year of service.
Hanley argued vainly that Pinole would derive numerous benefits from a contract with Rodeo-Hercules, among them greater efficiency, regional cooperation and cost-sharing, better fire prevention, and the prospect of opening three of the two agencies' combined four stations, two of which currently are shuttered. A federal grant awarded earlier this year, however, will reopen the Pinole Valley station at least part of the time over the next two years and possibly an additional year.