Thursday, July 14, 2011
A shift in Seaside’s political wind has spared its fire department from budgetary scorching, but left more City Hall positions in the inferno’s path.
Last year’s city budget projected a $132,000 savings from the first phase of a proposed joint powers agreement that would have consolidated administrative fire services on the Monterey Peninsula. The second phase would have saved Seaside an estimated $350,000 per year.
But after the 2010 election, the City Council reversed its earlier support of a JPA and directed staff to maintain Seaside’s stand-alone fire department.
“It wasn’t clear to us that the JPA was beneficial to the city of Seaside to the extent that it benefited other cities,” says Mayor Felix Bachofner, who ousted Ralph Rubio in November.
Seaside’s 2011-12 budget dedicates 27 percent of the General Fund to the fire department. “Obviously if we had gone a different way, there would have been more overall savings,” City Manager Ray Corpuz says.
The council’s about-face was only one of several snags that ultimately killed the JPA, Corpuz adds; other hang-ups included a Monterey debate over binding arbitration and liability concerns. “It just needed more work,” he says.
Meanwhile, Seaside has lost 33 non-public-safety positions over the past 18 months. “Pretty much all departments are running at minimum staffing,” Bachofner says. “If I could wave a magic wand, I would put a lot more people in public works and in parks.”
Councilman Alvin Edwards, who retired from SSFD on taking office last December, says his and Bachofner’s election reflected widespread opposition to the proposed fire consolidation. “Rubio and them made the JPA an issue,” he says. “He lost by 21 votes, and there were 21 guys at the fire department.”
The firefighters have made ample budget sacrifices already, Edwards adds. The SSFD operational budget shrank from $5 million in 2008-09 to $4.2 million in 2011-12; but it’s been over budget for three consecutive years, according to Deputy City Manager Daphne Hodgson.
That’s despite concessions by the Seaside Firefighters Association last summer. “We wound up giving back two pay increases that we had coming to us, and all of our holiday pay,” union president Jerry Suarez says.
Both the holiday pay and raises will be restored this fiscal year.
SSFD’s cuts are close to the General Fund’s shrinkage of roughly 17 percent, from $23.6 million to $19.6 million, since 2008-2009. “We’ve definitely done our fair share,” SSFD Acting Chief Steve Prelsnik says.
The “acting” in Prelsnik’s title is an indicator of the city’s stretched budget. Nine SSFD positions, including his, are currently being performed by fill-in personnel, who have received 5 percent salary bumps for working out of class without official promotions.
With an additional $1.8 million in Seaside General Fund revenue on the chopping block due to state legislation eliminating local redevelopment agencies, Prelsnik is brainstorming contingency plans. “As things continue to tighten budget-wise, we have to look at different options,” he says.
But the fire department is in notably better shape than City Hall. A Homeland Security grant restored three lost SSFD firefighter positions, bringing the staffing back to 24. Meanwhile, non-safety staff has shrunk from 115 budgeted positions in 2008 to 68 in 2011.
Councilman Dennis Alexander, a reserve Sand City police officer, says any more reductions to SSFD could jeopardize public safety. But he worries the threat to redevelopment funding would leave even deeper scars: “It’s going to hurt us all very badly.”