Where there’s smoke

City Council revisits staffing fire department, moves to prohibit commercial marijuana activities

Urban Laundry, a clothing store on Main Street, was destroyed by a fire early Tuesday morning (March 7).

Urban Laundry, a clothing store on Main Street, was destroyed by a fire early Tuesday morning (March 7).

Photo courtesy of the Chico Fire Department

Early in the morning on Tuesday (March 7), a fire started inside the downtown clothing store Urban Laundry, but Chico firefighters were quickly on the scene. A video of the incident shows two firefighters prying open the front door and pulling a fire hose through billowing black smoke, while two more scale a truck ladder and cut a hole in the roof with a chainsaw. Ultimately, they limited the fire damage to a single room.

Even so, Urban Laundry was destroyed and other businesses on Main Street had some degree of smoke damage, said Fire Chief Bill Hack. (As of the CN&R’s deadline, the cause of the fire had not been determined.) But it could have been worse. Such a fire could have leapt through the entire building, which, like most old structures downtown, doesn’t have sprinklers. That’s why it’s critical to get there fast, Hack said. “We had 10 people within a 90-second drive, which is as good as it gets.”

Coincidentally, on that same day, Hack closed two fire stations—Station 6 on Highway 32 and Station 3 at the Chico Municipal Airport—as the Chico Fire Department prepares to make six layoffs. Some members of the public aren’t comfortable with the reduction in service. Jacob Conlan, a student at Chico State, spoke on the issue during the Chico City Council meeting later that evening.

“I’m afraid you’ve created a situation where firefighters won’t get there in time,” he said.

Here’s the background: Heading into this fiscal year, the fire department had been banking on securing a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. That fell through in October. The next month, with funding set to expire on Jan. 1, the council voted to fully staff the department until March 7.

With that deadline approaching, on Feb. 7 Hack requested that the council allocate $352,150 to staff 17 firefighters at six stations through the end of the fiscal year. However, the council balked at the out-of-cycle budget request and voted 4-3 not to provide the additional funding. As the CN&R previously reported, 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.

The decision reduces daily staffing to 14 firefighters—two fewer than during the worst point of the Great Recession and the lowest level since 1995. That’s set to take effect on Sunday (March 12).

On Tuesday, the council considered Hack’s request to use unanticipated savings to keep three firefighters on staff. The money is available because two high-level employees with the fire department are out on extended leave due to injuries, said City Manager Mark Orme.

Ann Schwab made a motion to accept Hack’s request and also direct city staff to comb the city’s budget for funding to fully support the fire department. She also kicked off a heated exchange by criticizing the council members who did not meet with the author of the Standards of Response Coverage Plan, an independent report that recommended daily staffing of 17 firefighters.

“Are you seriously insinuating the rest of us didn’t understand the staffing plan?” asked Mayor Sean Morgan.

“I just wonder why you didn’t take the time to meet with the consultant,” Schwab responded.

“I think it’s pretty easy to read a staffing study, Ms. Schwab,” said Sorensen. “I completely reject your idea, your suggestion, that we are incapable of reading a staffing report.”

Sorensen made a “sub-motion” to accept Hack’s request, minus Schwab’s suggestion to find more money for the fire department. That type of motion, which most council members were unfamiliar with but City Clerk Debbie Presson affirmed was valid, was voted on prior to Schwab’s and passed 4-3, with Schwab and Councilmen Andrew Coolidge and Karl Ory dissenting.

In other council news, the panel took the first step toward restricting recreational marijuana in Chico. At Morgan’s request, City Attorney Vince Ewing presented a report on how Chico can regulate it under Proposition 64.

If the council took no action, starting on Jan. 1, 2018, people could apply for a license through the state and open a recreational marijuana dispensary or delivery business in Chico, Ewing said. In other words, the council would need to pass an ordinance if it wants to ban those businesses.

Robert Mackenzie, a Chico land-use lawyer who’s worked extensively on marijuana cases, urged the council to consider the benefits of taxing commercial weed activity.

“There’s a possibility that this state legislation could allow you to responsibly regulate a boutique industry, kind of like the wine industry, and that’s a great economic boon for this area,” he said.

Ory urged the council to take its time, meet with stakeholders and deliberate on the issue. “I think this is premature,” he said.

The council took action, though. Morgan made a motion to direct Ewing to draft an ordinance that would ban all commercial activity involving recreational marijuana in Chico. The motion passed 4-3 down party lines. By the same vote, the council added a stipulation that would ban growing recreational marijuana outdoors, and, separately, the panel unanimously voted to prohibit smoking pot in public spaces where cigarettes and e-cigarettes are disallowed.