Calfire: Contract could save $800K per year

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In less than a year the city of Morgan Hill hopes to sign with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as its new fire and emergency medical services provider, in hopes of saving local taxpayers about $800,000 per year.

The city council voted unanimously Wednesday to direct City Hall staff to draw up a contract with the department known as Calfire.

According to a proposal submitted by Calfire in response to a published request by the city, the department could offer the services for about $4.9 million per year. That cost includes the city’s share of supplies, a recommended future station replacement fund, payments on fire station purchases and apparatus leases.

The proposal offers service coverage at least equal to – and possibly better than – the existing services offered by Santa Clara County fire department, and lower costs attributable partly to Calfire’s existing resources in Morgan Hill and surrounding areas, according to Mayor Steve Tate. Those resources include a Calfire station in south Morgan Hill on Monterey Road, as well as training and personnel in the South County Fire District, for which Calfire is also the contractor.

“One thing Calfire does is unify (resources) so all three stations (in Morgan Hill) will serve the people of Morgan Hill,” Tate said. “And we’ve got to work more regionally going forward, and this is a step in that direction.”

The Calfire proposal bookends a process that started more than two years ago, when the city, county and the city of Gilroy began looking into fully regionalizing South County’s fire and EMS services. Now the area is served by three different agencies, is divided into three different fire protection districts, and occupied by three different providers.

The city of Gilroy backed out of those talks last year when city officials determined they could not save money by giving up its own fire department or incorporating it into a single management arrangement.

The estimated annual cost to Morgan Hill proposed by Calfire Wednesday also factors in revenue from fire and hazardous materials inspections, and from an ambulance contract with Santa Clara County, according to city staff.

And the contract proposal is a “not to exceed” amount, meaning that’s the maximum amount that Calfire will charge to the city, according to consultant John Goss of Ralph Anderson and Associates.

The city’s current provider, the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, costs about $5.8 million per year. The contract with the county expires June 30, but the city will likely add a six-month extension until Jan. 1, 2013, when Calfire would take over subject to upcoming contract negotiations with the city.

The Calfire proposal differs from the county contract in that it’s not a single, all-inclusive contract. The city will have to pay for some separate costs such as supplies and lease costs for apparatus (engines, trucks, tankers).

The proposal would also rely on Santa Clara County communications for EMS dispatch, and a private contractor for some fire prevention services such as inspections, according to Morgan Hill community services director Steve Rymer. City staff and a fire marshal will also provide some of those services.

Separate from any new contract is the city’s cost of purchasing the two county fire stations that are in the city limits – one on Old Monterey Road and one at Dunne Avenue and Hill Road. City staff are currently in the negotiations process of making that purchase.

“We achieved the goal of saving significant resources” with the Calfire proposal, said councilman Larry Carr. “It’s significant, as well, that we’re going to be reacquiring fire service assets. That provides us a lot more flexibility, and a lot more responsibility. Calfire has been in our community for a long time. They know Morgan Hill, they know our community, and they’re going to provide excellent service.”

Calfire’s proposal also indicates that service levels will remain at least the same as their current level, with three firefighters, including one paramedic, sent to each fire and EMS call, and comparable training to county fire staff, Rymer noted.

A large portion of the savings in Calfire’s proposal is attributable to the lower wages paid to Calfire staff, according to Calfire Santa Clara Unit Chief Steve Woodill.

“The state salaries are set more on a statewide average, versus a local average” set by local agencies, Woodill said. “Our employees are paid at a lesser base salary rate.”

Plus, Calfire personnel operate on a 72-hour work week, rather than a 56-hour work week employed by many other agencies, Woodill explained. That allows Calfire staff to work 12 days per month instead of 10 days per month, without billing for overtime for the two additional days.

The proposed salary and benefits for a local Calfire captain is about $95,954, according to Calfire staff.

Precise, apples-to-apples comparisons with other area agencies are tenuous without extensive, detailed study, but the average pay for Calfire employees seems noticeably lower than that for local agencies.

The salary, without benefits, of a San Jose Fire Department captain is about $93,000 per year, according to an agreement between the city’s firefighter union and the city of San Jose. The union took a 10-percent pay cut last year in order to help the city save money and limit the number of layoffs.

Councilman Rich Constantine, a San Jose fire engineer, said the personnel costs are unlikely to factor into the council’s decision or a final contract arrangement. And the lower Calfire salaries are unlikely to affect the service levels, he said.

“Our decision is based purely on the contract, and what services they can provide for Morgan Hill, and at what cost,” Constantine said, adding he’s heard “no complaints” from other nearby agencies including the county who participate in mutual aid agreements with Calfire.

Average salaries and benefits for single employee of area fire and EMS service agencies*
Santa Clara County: $218,541; 308 employees
City of Gilroy: $177,487; 38 employees
City of San Jose**:     $190,164; 770 emp.
Calfire: $78,605***; 8,198 emp.
*Source: Santa Clara County Local Agency Formation Commission, 2010; based on agencies’ “salaries and benefits” budgets, for all employees from office staff to chief.
**Union took a 10-percent pay cut in 2011
***Source: Calfire public information office

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