UPDATED: Council backs off on fire talk

Gilroy firefighters listen during a Gilroy City Council study

A wrangling over whether the City of Gilroy would contract out
for its fire services cooled off Monday as several Gilroy City
Council members decided to retain the current system.
A wrangling over whether the City of Gilroy would contract out for its fire services cooled off Monday as several Gilroy City Council members decided to retain the current system.

The Council held a study session Monday to analyze whether the city could save money by eliminating its current fire services in favor of new contracts with CalFire or the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

The topic garnered discussion among Council members during an annual goal-setting session Jan. 28 and 29 and was discussed during a Council meeting last summer.

There are on plans to readdress the topic for now, though Mayor Al Pinheiro said the issue could arise again at some point.

Councilman Bob Dillon said he didn’t want the city to spend any money on “an uncertainty” such as contracting out its fire service, and the decision could lead to fierce, unfriendly debate.

He also said he liked seeing “Gilroy” on the side of the city’s fire engines.

“I just like that. I can’t explain why,” Dillon said.

The City of Morgan Hill contracts with the county fire department, though the city’s name still is printed on the sides of the engines.

Dillon also said a Monday morning talk with City Administrator Tom Haglund helped solidify his stance of keeping the “status quo.” Haglund expressed concerns over the amount of staff time that would be required to begin the process of contracting out, Dillon said. With resources tied up in high-speed rail and other issues, adjusting fire services shouldn’t be on the city’s plate, Dillon said.

“I just didn’t think it was a battle that needed to be fought again,” he said.

One Council member said he felt like the lone voice of opposition.

On Tuesday, Councilman Perry Woodward called the refusal to study the option further “very puzzling.” He said Dillon’s argument for wanting to keep the city’s current services “pretty weak.”

“It’s uncomfortable to have to talk about these things,” Woodward said. “But that’s why we have a City Council.”

Woodward said he agreed Gilroy’s current fire engines were sources of pride, but the city needed to look long term.

“But looking down the road 10, 20 years, I’m not sure that the current model is sustainable,” he said.

Pinheiro and Haglund pointed to cost-saving measures city firefighters had already agreed to, including moving from four firefighters per engine to just three and creating a second-tier retirement system.

Haglund said Monday the city would need to take three specific steps when looking at contracting out fire services. The city would have to analyze potential costs and long-term savings, then conduct a service level review and comparison, Haglund said. Thirdly, the city would need to evaluate labor laws and bargaining requirements. None of those steps will be required now as the Council did not direct city staff to pursue them.

“It was a good decision,” Gilroy Fire Chief Dale Foster said. “The fire department is excited about continuing fire services here in Gilroy.”

Councilman Peter Leroe-Muñoz said he wasn’t sure the city would receive the same cooperation from a third-party fire service, and Councilwoman Cat Tucker said Gilroy “just wasn’t there yet,” in terms of needing to contract out.

Bracco said the city was best served keeping its current fire services.

“I’m a firm believer in that you get what you pay for,” he said. “Whenever you deal with the state or the county, we always get the short end of the stick in Gilroy.”

Woodward said he likely wouldn’t bring up the issue again unless he felt there was support for it on the Council, but added, “it doesn’t appear to be there.”

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