After the Hollister City Council voted to terminate its fire service contract with San Juan Bautista and San Benito County last month, local officials are looking into the creation of a new fire protection district as part of ongoing negotiations. The existing contracts will remain in effect until March 2025.

The San Benito County Fire Protection Committee met on July 1 to discuss moving forward with a feasibility study on a proposed fire district after Hollister voted to stop providing fire services to the other jurisdictions. 

Concerns raised by Hollister officials over the cost of the study led to a renewed tension between Hollister Mayor and committee chair Mia Casey and San Benito County Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki. Kosmicki repeated his accusations that Hollister council members are trying to “extort” the county for more money.

At a June 18 meeting, the Hollister City Council voted 4-1 to end the current contracts to provide fire and rescue services to unincorporated San Benito County and the city of San Juan Bautista. The action was meant to put pressure on the county to pay more for the services, which Hollister elected officials said are being subsidized at the expense of city taxpayers.

According to the fire department’s 2023 annual report to the city, Hollister proper accounted for 59% of the emergency calls, while county areas and San Juan Bautista made up 37% and 4% of calls, respectively. Hollister Fire has serviced the area under contract since 2013.

For the 2023-2024 fiscal year, the county paid $2.2 million for the services and San Juan Bautista paid about $260,000 into a fire budget of almost $14 million.

At the June 18 Hollister City Council meeting, council members Rick Perez and Dolores Morales both said it was time the city stopped subsidizing the county’s fire services and that it pay more.

Perez said he supports first responders and that layoffs are not on the table.

“We’re losing a lot of money every year. This is money we could actually be putting into the fire department and the police department,” Perez said.

Also at the June 18 meeting, Vince Grewohl, president of Hollister Firefighters Association Local 3395, told the council that they were using the safety of residents as a “bargaining chip” in its negotiations with the other jurisdictions. He added that the move could lead to layoffs for the department if their budget is cut.

As it stands, the contracts are still in effect until March 2025. Now, the fire protection committee sees the creation of a fire protection district as a first option. However, the process is being drawn out as the committee has yet to approve the feasibility study. 

The fire protection committee is made up of representatives from the cities of Hollister, San Juan Bautista and San Benito County. The body is there to advise the region’s fire protection agencies. 

At the July 1 meeting, Casey expressed reservations over the increased cost of the study and AP Triton, the consultant that submitted the sole study proposal to the committee. The latest version of the proposal marks the cost of the feasibility study at $131,746, which Casey said was significantly higher than the original bid.

The proposal estimates that the study will take six to nine months to complete.

“I feel like we’re kind of over a barrel […], I’ve lost a little faith with what we’re getting from them,” Casey said.

Kosmicki accused Casey of using stalling tactics to force the county’s hand.

“I believe we should move forward with the feasibility study. This is again, to me, another stall tactic […] to avoid moving ahead on fire protection district because of the concern that the county would not be paying its ‘fair share’ for a $15 million fire budget,” Kosmicki said.

The 2022-23 San Benito County Grand Jury report found that the Hollister Fire Department suffered from “staffing shortages and equipment issues.” Casey has previously stated that the increased budget for fire services is in response to the report’s recommendations.

Kosmicki and Hollister council member Rolan Resedniz have both said that the move to increase the contribution of the county and San Juan Bautista is related to financial mismanagement by city leadership.

Supervisor Angela Curro, the county’s other representative on the fire protection committee, floated a compromise at the July 1 meeting in which the county would absorb the cost increases of the feasibility study.

“That would be a good will gesture to the cities that we are trying. And the reason I’m saying that is because every time we go back and rebid […] we’re losing time and it isn’t helping the community,” Curro said.

The creation of a Joint Powers Authority was mentioned as a possible solution, but discussion on that would have to go back to the committee members’ respective government bodies before a formal discussion could be started.

The committee will meet again on Aug. 1, after further discussion by the county board of supervisors and both San Juan Bautista and Hollister city councils regarding the study proposal. The JPA option will also be discussed further.

Casey told the Free Lance after the July 1 meeting that Hollister officials are looking for a way forward with negotiations, but that they are wary of AP Triton’s track record, ability to turn around a report in a timely manner and the increased costs.

She wants to assure the public that fire services are still operating as normal.

“Some news reports said that the contracts were terminated. They have not been terminated. There’s a nine-month period of time for negotiation now. Our firefighters are there, they’ll be there all summer through the heat wave and nothing is happening until March of 2025. And by then, hopefully, we’ll have renegotiated the contract,” Casey said.

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