Several residents from around the county and representatives from one major employer in San Juan Bautista expressed concern over the direction county fire service could take Tuesday morning as the San Benito County supervisors reviewed proposals from Hollister and Calfire for consolidated services.
After more than two hours of discussion and comments, supervisors voted to seek out a two-year contract with Hollister, with direction to bring back a plan for a permanent fire station in north county and a plan to provide service in south county within a year. The vote was unanimous.
The city proposal calls for adding a fire station in north county and making use of up to 80 reserve or volunteer firefighters to man four stations in the county, including one that San Juan Bautista’s city council has agreed to build with funding from the Mission City.
Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez stressed the importance of lowering response times in the plan to staff four fire stations. He said the Hollister Fire Department responds to about 400 calls annually in county areas, mostly in northern San Benito and San Juan.
The Calfire proposal included three models from which the county could select service. Supervisors questioned why Calfire had not submitted a plan for consolidated services that would have incorporated the Hollister and San Juan Fire Departments.
“I look at Calfire and I don’t see a proposal with Calfire providing a complete county report,” said Supervisor Robert Rivas. “I want to look at the objective of consolidation and look at where we can do it.”
Rich Hutchinson, the unit chief for San Benito/Monterey Calfire, said as a state agency it needed an invitation from the local jurisdiction to put together a proposal.
“We did not receive a request until the day prior to the last fire committee meeting,” Hutchinson said. “Absent a formal request we can do an estimate but we are not allowed to engage.”
The proposal from Hollister estimated an annual cost of $1.1 million to provide fire service to the county. Calfire estimated the cost for county fire service would be $1.2 million, though the state offered two models that would increase the cost by $100,000 or $200,000.
Residents comment on proposals
Two representatives from Earthbound Farm spoke about the need for equipment that would be able to respond to their large headquarters in San Juan Valley, which employees 500 people.
While engineer Richard Paulus expressed concern about the ability of a voluntary fire department to respond to the unique needs of the large agricultural packaging plant, Lisette Knight, the permit compliance coordinator, said her concern is having a fire prevention specialist who can work closely with developers.
Knight noted that as Earthbound Farm moved through a recent building process, it did not have a “fire person on site providing support to planning and building” as it had in the past. She said the company met all the requirements for the fire code, but having fire personnel on site would have been helpful.
“They can give a perspective from a tactical standpoint,” she said.
Supervisors had eliminated a fire prevention person from their county fire budget several years back in order to save money in the contract with Calfire. Both proposals before the board Tuesday offered an option that included a fire prevention specialist.
Several residents from southern San Benito County expressed concern that the use of Hollister and San Juan firefighters, with a heavy reliance on paid reserve and unpaid volunteer firefighters, would increase response times to rural parts of the county.
“I believe the response time will suffer because people from Hollister won’t know where things are,” said Paul Wattis, a rural resident. “Why would we give money to an agency that has not been fiscally responsible?”
He suggested making monthly payments of $100,000 to the city for service rather than paying it out all at once.
“That way they can’t get that far into your pocket,” he said.
Supervisor Margie Barrios requested the contract include a requirement for firefighters to receive geographical informatio-system training so that they would be better equipped to find far-flung properties in the county.
Rivas again expressed concern about the use of volunteer firefighters to increase the staff. He said as a volunteer firefighter he often could not respond to calls that conflicted with his full-time job, an issue he worries will come up with reliance on so many volunteers.
Georgeanne Gularte, a planning commission in San Juan Bautista, spoke about the long history of the volunteer fire department in the city.
“In San Juan Bautista the word volunteer means service,” Gularte said. “There have been 145 years of firemen and women. They are committed, trained and they are there to do what they say they are going to do.”
At the meeting, Supervisor Anthony Botelho said at the outset that the fire prevention committee was recommending supervisors move forward on a contract with the city of Hollister. He read aloud a lengthy letter he had sent to Velazquez in January with suggestions on issues the city could address in a proposal.
“I certainly would not endorse any plan I thought would not work in all five districts,” Botelho said.
After several comments from concerned residents in South County, Supervisor Jerry Muenzer clarified that Calfire would continue to maintain a presence at fire stations in the state responsibility area during fire season.
Richard Bianchi, of the Farm Bureau, said the agency was not supportive of a contract with the Hollister Fire Department.
“Things don’t smell right here,” he said. “Why was (Calfire) only issued a letter of request the day before? If you are OK with a volunteer group of 80, God bless whoever is wrangling those 80 volunteers across three or four stations.”
Botelho asked if members of the Farm Bureau would be willing to forgo their Williamson Act benefit in exchange for better fire protection.
“We are talking about fire safety here and you are talking about property tax,” Bianchi said, declining to respond to Botelho’s question.
San Juan Fire Chief John Fox said city councilmembers in the city are on board with the plan.
“Our board voted unanimously to contribute $150,000 (annually),” Fox said. “The other thing is they will build a station with four bedrooms that will sleep eight people. We will build it and we will maintain it on our own.”
Supervisors expected to have a contract in May, with plans to move forward with implementing it before the end of June, when the current contract with Calfire ends.