Commentary: Slow Down on Adding $1.5 Million in Personnel Costs For a Ladder Truck

UC Davis ladder vehicle fighting a fire in downtown Davis in 2018

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:

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Glick

    How would we get cats out of trees without this truck?

    We need consultants to tell us what we already know? Wasting  more money is not the answer.

    We already know the answer. Contract with UCD for shared services of the vehicle and crew.  The real question is do we have the political will to say no to the fire department?

    1. Keith Olsen

      We need consultants to tell us what we already know? Wasting  more money is not the answer.
      We already know the answer. Contract with UCD for shared services of the vehicle and crew.

      Well said………..

    2. David Greenwald

      They don’t even need to contract with UCD if that’s the route they want to go. The consultant is one option if they are going to pursue the truck, they don’t need the consultant if the answer is no.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Well, it appears that Davis won’t be needing a ladder truck for the proposed DISC site, at least.  Yay!


    And it also appears that any attempt like this again is going to face another Measure (D) vote, to say the least. That, my friends, is a pretty sound booty-kicking, regarding the effort to disenfranchise voters or weaken the measure.

    1. Alan Miller

      yeah, but they will need the ladder truck for all the infill highrises coming our way thanks to the defeat of Measure B and even more due to the passage of Measure D.

      Did anyone else hear the public comments in the Housing Element meeting on Thursday night?  It was 90% students calling in demanding density, infill and high-rises — and a few disparaged Davis residents as “anti-student”.

      At the very end a couple of non-students called in, some suggesting UCD should contribute to mitigate their impact — while a UCD rep claimed they had.  Matt Williams had some excellent comments, and I hope he’ll repeat them here, as I would not do them justice if I tried to regurgitate them myself.

      1. David Greenwald

        Alan Miller is correct – we make policy choices both by action and inaction. If we don’t build out, we will be forced to build up and both have consequences.

        There is definitely an anti-student wave and we see in some of the less guarded comments against projects, we see it more subtly, and we see it when we steer projects away from larger unit sizes. The same people demanding UCD contribute more are the same people who wonder why UCD doesn’t do more on things like DISC. No one really wants to acknowledge how toxic this environment is and that no one really wants to step into the fray unless they have to – so we are where we are. Ron will celebrate the loss of DISC, the passage of Measure D and then stew about the down hill consequences from those choices.

        1. Ron Oertel

          In general, growth is a choice, not a requirement.  That is, until folks elect officials who then require it.

          The subgroup of students (some of whom appear to have connections with development interests) have already gotten everything they’ve wanted, regarding the megadorm approvals.  So, I’m not sure what they’re supposedly dissatisfied about.

          DISC would have exacerbated housing shortages, and significantly contributed to greenhouse gasses – both of which are stated concerns of students, in general.

          Regarding the ladder truck, it appears that it’s going to be needed regardless of DISC.  From a practical standpoint, it seems to me that midrise development (if that’s the choice that Davis pursues) should be concentrated in the actual core of the city, rather than sending the ladder truck 4-5 miles away to a location such as the DISC site, when needed.

          From what I’ve seen, the subgroup of students are the ones who are attempting to initiate a wedge with non-student residents, and that the Vanguard encourages this.  The Vanguard would provide a better service to the community if it (instead) investigated ties that some of these students appear to have with development interests.  Then again, the Vanguard itself has these same type of ties.

          I like Davis (and the DISC site) the way it is (including the condition it is in). You won’t find me advocating for development to pave streets. Or more accurately, using street paving as an “excuse” to support more development.

          Keep in mind that three of the FBC commissioners did NOT agree that DISC would have created a “fiscal profit” at ANY of the stages.

          1. David Greenwald

            “I like Davis (and the DISC site) the way it is ”

            This is the false choice of no growthers. The world doesn’t stay static. No matter what we decide to do, Davis will not remain the way it is.

        2. Ron Oertel

          The “false choice” is claiming that the DISC site must change, and that the city must expand ever-outward.

          As far as Davis itself changing, I would expect it to over time.  Again, those are choices, not requirements.  (At least, until you elect officials who then require it.)

          I suspect that Davis will become more dense, but certainly not less-expensive as a result.

          I always kind of laugh at those who claim that Davis is expensive, in the first place. In reality, the entire region has become more expensive, but it’s still nowhere near the Bay Area regarding that. Davis housing is dirt-cheap, in comparison.

        3. Ron Oertel

          And again, supply/demand has two components.  With the “demand” side primarily coming from the creation of jobs.

          That’s why the Bay Area is the way it is.

          Jobs at UCD (and the general influence of the university) is the reason that Davis is the way it is. (Well that, plus proximity to Sacramento.)

          UCD is also (ultimately) a primary reason for developments such as Spring Lake.

  3. Ron Oertel

    But if you really want to know, high-rises in Davis aren’t going to “pencil out” – for the developers, or the city. There aren’t any “working professionals” to speak of, seeking a home in a high-rise in downtown Davis.

    Regarding penciling-out (for the city), the newly-created need for a ladder truck (and staffing, as well as ultimate replacement), is a perfect example – which won’t be funded by the new developments which are actually creating the need.  😉

      1. Ron Oertel

        There are few “professional jobs” to speak of, other than at UCD (or in Sacratomato).  It’s always been that way.

        It’s not a “swinging singles” town (other than the students).

        Most folks who settle permanently in the area want a house.  And can find new ones easily, in places like Spring Lake.

        Or “pre-owned” ones, in places like Mace Ranch.

        I suspect that there are some relatively wealthy seniors who might like living in downtown Davis. Unless it becomes a giant megadorm.

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