By David M. Greenwald
In theory it seemed to make sense, as the city has focused much of its housing growth in denser, taller buildings—especially apartments—around town. Chief Joe Tenney, in fact, cited over 200 buildings that are three stories or higher and Councilmember Lucas Frerichs named at least half a dozen approved buildings at four to seven stories.
If this were simply a matter of capital equipment costs, it would be a no-brainer—we have the money for the $1.8 million in hard costs and we have a public safety fund that comes from development impact fees, so use it.
But the $1.5 million in personnel costs is harder to swallow, in part because it is not a one time cost that can be recouped from non-general fund sources or, most likely, even grants—it’s ongoing money. (The chief did present the possibility of a SAFER grant but that would cover three years of staffing ramp up, not ongoing costs).
This is the equivalent, as Dan Carson rightly points out, of a $50 a year parcel tax.
“It’s not a minor amount of money year over year,” he said.
Even if we looked at cost-sharing with the university, unless we are looking at a truck with part UCD and part City of Davis fire personnel, that seems like a non-starter, and even $750,000 seems a bit out of our price range.
We have a theoretical need here—more tall buildings. But as I went back over Chief Tenney’s slide show, I realized that there was a slide missing—and I don’t mean the city failed to post the entire presentation, but rather that the chief had neglected a key slide.
The presentation was actually pretty thorough and informative. It laid out pretty well the costs, the taller buildings, personnel requirements—but what wasn’t there is how many times last year a ladder truck was actually brought out from UC Davis and needed last year.
That would seem like a key slide to show. Right now UC Davis has a ladder truck and with mutual aid agreements, and within about eight minutes it can be brought out to any spot in the city to assist in fires that impact taller buildings. If the ladder truck is only being called out to deal with fires a few times a year, it doesn’t make sense for the city of Davis to add huge amounts of personnel for something they only need a few times a year.
This would require at least six additional firefighters to get to a four-person daily minimum staffing—a total of 12 personnel for the three shifts, but an upgrade of six just to run the ladder truck.
UC Davis has their own ladder truck, which they just upgraded to four firefighters on the truck at a time. The truck is getting near the end of its usable lifetime, but they will probably purchase a new one and, unlike Davis, UC Davis already has the personnel in place.
If we had frequent need for a ladder truck, then it would make sense to purchase our own. But, given the infrequent use, the proximity of UC Davis, and the overwhelming additional costs, perhaps we need to study this issue a bit more.
The first thing I would suggest here is that, before the council moves further, the city hire an outside consultant who can objectively examine the situation. We just spent a tumultuous several year period looking at ways to reduce costs for city services, and in particular the fire department. So now we are going to simply add six new firefighters without a clear and established need to do so?
My suggestion would be hire CityGate again to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding. They should be charged with providing information on: (1) the assessed need for a ladder truck, (2) whether the current arrangement suffices and at what level of service we need to reach in order for it to make sense to add fire personnel and a ladder truck, (3) ways we can staff it, and (4) cost cutting measures.
This is not a great time to be adding cost.
First, the voters in 2018 turned down a parcel tax for roads. While a recent presentation has suggested the ongoing costs for road repairs may be less than previously feared, that is still a huge looming cost for the city that doesn’t figure to go away.
Second, the voters appear to have voted down DISC which would have generated at build out at least $5 million in ongoing revenue—and probably with multiplier effects, it would have generated a lot more.
Third, the COVID pandemic has be costly. Transient Occupancy Tax amounts figure to be way down. The city has opened one new hotel this year and another is on-line to open in the early part of 2021, but those hotels are not being filled. Business shutdowns figure to be a hit on sales tax. And, while the real estate market continues to be fairly hot, it is hard to know how this will impact that revenue in the middle term—the next five to ten years.
The bottom line is that, while it is hard to know which way the economy will go in the next few years, money could be very tight for the foreseeable future—even not taking into account the city’s long-term structural shortfalls.
Dan Carson pointed out that we remain in a COVID economy, and it will take time to purchase the truck anyway. “I just hope we can use this (time) to find the least costly option for staffing.
“I don’t disagree that there is the need for this type of vehicle in this town,” he said.
But I think, actually, the need for the city to purchase that truck should be scrutinized to a much greater extent.
I think we have to take a step back here, starting with do we really need this vehicle versus wanting this vehicle—and we need numbers to back up the need, starting with how many times we used it last year or over the past five years and project that cost into the future.
Gloria Partida added, “I realize that this is a lot of money that we are talking about. I’m wondering if this is something that we can slowly ease into as far staffing goes. I think there are a lot of people who would be very nervous about spending this amount of money and resources.”
Privately, at least some of the councilmembers seemed a bit more concerned about the personnel costs than they expressed at the meeting on Tuesday. It would behoove the city to have an independent third party with expertise in city budgets and fire personnel to evaluate this ask before the city proceeds further down this path.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
Also would like to invite you to participate in our webinar with Mayor Gloria Partida, this might be a topic of conversation – Friday, November 20 at noon. To register – hit this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_kswA1_FqRoG1VYL6S-FuQw
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