Put out

Chico City Council votes to lay off nine firefighters

The Chico Fire Department put out 73 structure fires last year.

The Chico Fire Department put out 73 structure fires last year.

Photo courtesy of the Chico Fire Department.

Chico Fire Chief Bill Hack left the City Council chambers on Tuesday (Feb. 7) and was greeted with a round of applause from the men and women who’d just lost their jobs. Some were in tears. “Thank you for trying,” one said.

Hack, choking up, managed to say, “A single defeat is not a final defeat. We will show up tomorrow and do the best we can.”

In 2014, Hack wrote the proposal for a federal grant that awarded the Chico Fire Department $5.3 million to hire 15 firefighters for two years. At the time, he considered it his greatest professional accomplishment, but now he’s convinced that the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant hurt more than it helped. While other city departments recovered modestly from the sweeping layoffs of 2013, the fire department was artificially buoyed by the grant, Hack told the CN&R. Now that money is gone—and he has to lay off nine firefighters. That’s on top of the five who were cut loose in January.

The council’s decision not to provide additional funding ahead of the next budget cycle represents the worst-case scenario for his department, Hack said. Starting on March 7, he’ll reduce daily staffing to 14 firefighters, two fewer than the worst point during the Great Recession and the lowest level since the early 1990s.

He regrets applying for the SAFER grant in the first place, he said. “It’s become my greatest professional disappointment.”

The city’s 2016-17 budget, passed by the council in June, assumed the city would secure an extension of the SAFER grant. There was no backup plan when it fell through in October. The next month, with the funding set to expire on Jan. 1, the council voted to fully staff the department until March 7. That gave members of the panel time to review the Standards of Response Coverage Plan, a data-based report on the city’s fire-protection strategies completed by a Missouri-based independent consultant—Fitch & Associates—at a cost of $50,000.

The report concludes that Chico should have a minimum of 17 firefighters on duty at its six stations, based on the city’s demands. Last year, the department responded to more than 12,000 calls for service and put out 73 structure fires.

Moreover, Chico has an especially risky college-age population, Hack said during an interview at Fire Station 1 on Salem Street. Intentionally set mattress and couch fires in the student neighborhoods largely account for why Chico had the highest rate of arson of any California city in 2015, according to FBI crime data.

At the worst point during the Great Recession, daily staffing fell from 22 to 16 firefighters, Hack said. Since securing the SAFER grant, he’s kept a minimum of 17 firefighters on duty at all times, boosting staffing when he anticipates a lot of medical calls on big party weekends.

Hack considers 17 firefighters to be a skeleton crew, but vowed to make do with the resources providing for three fewer. “The council could vote to staff the fire department with five people, and I would give them the best damn five-person fire department there is,” he said. “My job is to let them know what the risks are.”

On Tuesday, Hack presented the council with three options for staffing the department: make no layoffs and maintain daily staffing of 17 firefighters, as per the Standards of Coverage report’s recommendation, at a cost of $352,150 through the end of the fiscal year; reduce daily staffing to 16 firefighters and make three layoffs at a cost of $200,000; or provide no additional funding, lay off nine firefighters and reduce daily staffing to 14.

Eight members of the public spoke on the issue. Some urged the council to fund street improvements or more police officers rather than the fire department, while others brought up the perhaps unforeseen consequences of cutting firefighters. “When a fire department is understaffed, the community’s ISO rating will drop,” said Brett Sanders, a local insurance agent. “That increases insurance premiums for Chico citizens and business owners, adding another burden on top of inflated housing costs and cost of living.”

Cost was the main concern for city officials, as well. The city’s sales tax revenues are declining and costs of employee benefits and retirement plans are skyrocketing, said City Manager Mark Orme. Though a one-time general fund allocation could bail out the fire department temporarily, the city doesn’t have the money long term.

“We’re on thin ice,” he said.

Councilman Andrew Coolidge made a motion to maintain the fire department’s current staffing level until the next budget cycle in June. That motion failed 2-5, drawing a yes from Councilwoman Ann Schwab.

Councilman Randall Stone countered with a motion for the third option: provide the department with no additional funding. Before voting yes, Councilman Mark Sorensen said there was no ambiguity when the council accepted the SAFER grant.

“When the funding ran out, positions ran out,” he said.

Stone’s motion passed 4-3, with Coolidge, Schwab and Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer dissenting. Hack will decide which fire stations to close by next month.