VCTA Proven Right About Fire Station

Last year, the Ventura City Council accepted a $2.3 million federal grant that allowed it to reopen Fire Station 4, an east side station off Telephone Road that was closed because of budget cuts. VCTA expressed strong opposition to the deal.

The grant was expected to pay for a little less than two years’ worth of operating costs. In exchange, the city agreed to pay to keep it open a third year at a cost of $1.2 million.

But staffing and operating the station as cost significantly more than initially thought — $473,000 from November 2011 to October and an additional estimated $402,000 from November to October 2013. Those costs are attributed to overtime, utilities and equipment, items not covered by the grant.

In addition, the grant wasn’t totally used in the first two years because it can go only to salary and benefits, and it took time before the station got fully staffed and running. Some of the leftover grant money will be rolled over into year three.

The Fire Department received no additional money from the city so it paid for the difference by cutting elsewhere and shifting resources, fire officials said.

The third year is still on track to cost the city about $1.2 million. But by the fourth year, the operating costs, driven largely by overtime and salaries, is projected to climb to roughly $1.6 million.

Fire Chief Don McPherson presented that information as part of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, annual report on Monday night.

The city is paying third-year operating costs from a fund used for fire and paramedic equipment, including radios, computers and defibrillators. To help offset costs after that, the department will look for grants like the one used to reopen the station, money that came from the Department of Homeland Security.

The operating costs at Station 4 surprised some officials.

“I feel like I got misled,” Mayor Mike Tracy said.

Tracy said when he voted to accept the grant to reopen the station, he wasn’t aware there would be those extra costs.

“It’s clear the SAFER grant isn’t paying for the full costs of the first two years,” Tracy said.

But McPherson said the grant was never intended to cover all the operating costs at Station 4, 8303 Telephone Road. McPherson said when city officials applied for the grant in 2010, they came up with the figure of $1.2 million based on new hires, but that higher-paid officials, including captains and engineers, staff the station.

Since last year, a major cost that is not part of the grant has been the recruiting and hiring of nine firefighters. A background check had to be done on each new employee, and outfitting them costs $8,000 to $10,000, McPherson said.

Tracy said he wouldn’t have changed his vote had he known there would be those extra costs but that the council must think about such things when considering how to keep the station open.

McPherson said the grant has been successful and improved fire operations.

“It’s not just helping the east end,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous help to the service we’re providing.”

Whether responding to someone suffering a heart attack, a house fire or a water main break, time is critical, McPherson said, and having the station helps reduce response times.

When the station reopened, fire crews responded to calls in its coverage area within five minutes 51 percent of the time, compared with 16 percent when it was closed. Citywide, fire crews responded to calls within five minutes 47 percent of the time with Station 4 closed, a figure that is now up to 59 percent, according to McPherson’s report.

Ventura has six fire stations. Station 4, shut in mid-2010, had been chosen for closure after officials determined it would affect response times for the fewest people.

The question of how the fire station would be paid for once the grant and city money runs out — four months into the 2014-15 fiscal year — has always been unknown.

“They’re going to be OK at this stage for paying that third year. For year four, we haven’t identified the funding yet,” said Jay Panzica, the city’s chief financial officer. “The Fire Department has been assigned the task of trying to identify where the funding will come from, so that’s what they’re working on.”

Not everyone supported the council’s decision to accept the grant. The Ventura County Taxpayers Association opposed the move because the city had no plan on how it would pay to keep the station open beyond the third year.

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