San Carlos and Belmont prepare for split of fire department after 31-year partnership

The cities of San Carlos and Belmont created a joint fire department in 1979 to reduce costs. Thirty-one years later, San Carlos has decided to break away — to save money.

The impending split, set for October 2011, highlights potential pitfalls of the longstanding idea that fire agencies in San Mateo County should merge into a regional entity. This notion has enjoyed renewed attention among public officials as cities struggle to pay for local services.

Belmont-San Carlos Fire Chief Doug Fry speaks to community members at a meeting in October about the joint response of county fire departments to the San Bruno gas-line explosion. Fry said he supports regionalizing fire and emergency services throughout the county. (Photo: Paul Jones)

For one thing, as Belmont and San Carlos leaders have found, the loss of local control and discord between governing entities can pose challenges. A squabble between the two cities in 2005, for example, resulted in the revision of their 50/50 cost-sharing arrangement. San Carlos ended up paying 53 percent of the fire department’s costs, compared with Belmont’s 47 percent.

“For years it has been costing us more and more,” San Carlos City Councilman Andy Klein said. “If we want to cut our services or salaries and look at reforming benefits, we have to get our partner to do that with us.”

Another possible obstacle for regionalization: Firefighters’ pay is often negotiated upwards as the population and area served by a department grows.

“When San Carlos joined with Belmont, we went from a salary survey of (a department serving) 28,000 to 55,000 people,” Klein said. “Every firefighter would get paid more if we went countywide; we’d be up there with San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland. Any savings could be wiped out with 10, 20, 30 percent raises.”

Chief Douglas Fry, of the Belmont-San Carlos department, pointed out that salaries are negotiable, not set in stone. He also said there are advantages to being competitive in pay with larger departments.

“I’ve been with this organization 30-plus years … when they were the lowest paid,” Fry said. “Firefighters would go on to other departments. We spent tons of money training people, and when a better offer came along, they’d leave.”

Fry supports regionalization as a strategy to eliminate overlaps in personnel and fire stations and to share expenses. “When you’re larger, you can do more things,” he said, “Regionalization shouldn’t be discounted.”

The various fire and emergency services agencies in San Mateo County already coordinate on programs such as sharing radio frequencies, dispatching trucks and ambulances, and participating in the state’s mutual aid system. When the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion happened in September, this regional network responded.

And in fairness to supporters of regionalization, the Belmont-San Carlos department has struggled in part because of a management decision made years ago: the department negotiated retroactive increases to firefighters’ retirement benefits in exchange for lower salaries.

That arrangement didn’t cost much at the time because CalPERS — the organization in charge of the fund paying for firefighters’ pensions — was doing well, according to San Carlos Mayor Randy Royce. But then the housing market crash in 2008 cut deeply into CalPERS’ investments.

“Now they have to replenish [the retirement fund], so the rates the city normally contributes to CalPERS will go up,” Royce said.

About $1.5 million of the Belmont-San Carlos department’s roughly $12 million annual budget was going to pay for a “catch-up” fund to cover the benefits, Royce said. Twice in the past five years, San Carlos voters have turned down tax increases for fire protection.

Ed Hawkins, president of the county firefighters union, said San Carlos had other options to cut costs besides breaking up the department. Hawkins said the union had previously negotiated reduced pensions and a temporary pay freeze with San Carlos, and could do so again.

“We’ve negotiated concessions up and down the county. We just did it at Pacifica, Millbrae, San Mateo and Redwood City,” he said.

Hawkins said he didn’t believe the reason the department was being dissolved had to do with its price tag. “I think it’s more about this childish feud with Belmont than anything else,” he said.

San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura said council members had instructed Fry, the fire chief, to ask the union to consider reduced pay, only to be turned down by the union.

Royce said there may be a silver lining in the break-up: San Carlos and Belmont must now figure out how they will provide fire and emergency services, and with that comes the opportunity to make the system more efficient.

For example, Royce said, most calls received by the department are for medical emergencies. Yet fire trucks with paramedic staff are first to respond to medical calls, followed by ambulances, an expensive arrangement.

“[Instead] we can tell the fire department to keep the truck at the station, and have a paramedic respond on its own,” he said.

Belmont City Manager Greg Scoles said coming up with better service models could grease the skids for regionalized fire protection and emergency response in the future. “Regionalization is a coming trend for things like police and fire, as people rethink how to provide services,” Scoles said.

But Scoles acknowledged that the demise of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department is reason for caution.

“From a collaborative standpoint, we had that relationship with San Carlos … and that clearly isn’t working out,” he said.

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