County to shut two fire stations

Faced with an intractable budget shortfall, supervisors do the unthinkable: vote to reduce fire protection

“I hate this.”

“I hate it too. I really do.”

Those were the words spoken by two members of the Butte County Board of Supervisors—Maureen Kirk and Bill Connelly—just before the board voted 3-2 to do what none of the supervisors wanted to do or even imagined themselves doing, especially after last summer’s horrific fires: close fire stations.

That was the toughest decision the board had to make at its standing-room-only, three-hour budget meeting Tuesday (March 24). Supervisors were under immense pressure to cut $4.1 million from the 2009-10 fiscal-year budget in order to keep the county’s credit rating sound, necessary to enable it to obtain short-term cash flow loans essential to ongoing operations. And they knew that another round of cuts—some $4 million worth—is coming up in May, after the governor releases his proposed state budget.

Interim Chief Administrative Officer Greg Iturria’s proposal called for eliminating 42.3 full-time-equivalent positions countywide in what he called the second of three “waves” of cuts designed to compensate for a budget shortfall now pegged at $19.1 million.

In addition, the proposal called for reducing the contract between the county and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CalFire), which provides fire protection for the county, by $2.5 million.

At an earlier budget meeting, on March 3, when the county made its first “wave” of cuts, the figure had been pegged at $3.5 million. Iturria said he and his staff, working with Fire Chief Henri Brachais, had managed to trim in other areas and eliminate one field battalion chief position, reducing the needed cuts by $1 million.

That resulted in the one bit of good news at the meeting: The six so-called Amador fire stations in the foothills would not be closed during winter months, as originally proposed. At the March 3 meeting, many foothills residents had argued for keeping them open year-round.

But it would still be necessary to use coordinated “rolling brownouts” to close two of the county’s 12 stations every day on a rotating basis. Doing so would save $1.2 million, but it would also mean longer response times. As Brachais told the board, “rolling brownouts” work much better in urban areas, where stations are relatively close together, than in rural areas like Butte County, where they are far apart.

Nobody liked the idea. One after another, local residents stepped to the lectern to beg the board not to reduce fire protection.

But the supervisors were stuck. As District 4 Supervisor Steve Lambert put it, “None of us want brownouts, but how do we get there if there’s no way to get there?”

Or, as Connelly said, “We can’t print Butte bucks.”

Iturria had made it clear that, if the county wanted to preserve its ability to borrow money on a short-term basis for cash-flow purposes, something it absolutely must be able to do, it had to come up with a sound—that is, balanced—budget. And if it wanted to renegotiate its contract with CalFire, it had to start now.

With supervisors looking at having to find another $4 million or so to cut in May, they really had no choice Tuesday.

Kirk, who with Supervisor Jane Dolan voted against cutting the fire stations, tried to find a way out, exploring reductions in the contingency budget, for example, but nothing seemed to work.

As Iturria pointed out, the county spends more than 75 percent of its discretionary funds on public safety. It can’t cut $19.1 million without cutting fire or law-enforcement services.

Connelly and Yamaguchi pledged to work with community members to come up with ways of keeping the stations open. And there was some discussion of setting up self-taxing fire-protection districts to keep individual stations open. But nobody was happy with the decision that had been made.

Not all of the meeting was about the fire stations. The supervisors also spent some time talking about the libraries. They were concerned about new information suggesting that cuts in the library budget—it’s slated to lose 5.5 positions and reduce hours of operation greatly—might result in the loss of other funding.

Library Director Derek Wolfgram said, yes, there were two threats. One was the potential loss of $75,000 in state funding pegged to an agreement not to cut the library budget, and the other had to do with the city of Chico’s contribution of $170,000 to keep the Chico branch open an additional 25 hours weekly.

Under that agreement, the county is obliged to fund the library sufficiently to keep it open for a minimum of 35 hours. The current proposal, he said, would reduce county-funded hours from 42 to 30, putting the agreement at risk.

Kirk pointed out that “the use of that library is incredible.” And Dolan quickly stated, referring to the Chico City Council possibly cutting its funding, “They will not do it easily.”

Dolan then raised the issue of a special tax dedicated to the library, saying she was tired of watching the libraries “limping along” and surviving only because of their “volunteer armies.”

Wolfgram agreed: “If there’s a silver lining in this crisis, I hope it’s something permanent and sustainable.”