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August 4, 2021

Supes choose to study possible fire merger with city

With the end of a Calfire contract to provide fire service to San Benito County looming in June, at least one county supervisor Tuesday pushed to move forward quickly with a contract with the City of Hollister while others asked for more of a cost/benefit analysis before making a decision.
During budget hearings last summer, Calfire presented what they called the Amador Plan, which would have increased fire service protection in the off-season and expanded services year-round.
“Calfire came forward with the Amador plan,” said Rich Inman, the county administrative officer. “We were unprepared to give an analysis and that caused some delays. For various reasons, Calfire came forward and said they would not be renewing the contract with the city.”
Inman met with officials from Hollister to discuss the possibility of the city providing fire service if the contract with Calfire is not renewed. Based on that initial meeting, Inman presented a few benefits of switching county fire service to the city department from the state-controlled Calfire.
Inman listed the benefits as reduced costs of $78,000; expanded services, including nine firefighters, a half-time fire marshal, hazardous materials response and expanded reserve program; seamless communication dispatching; no administrative costs; program to involve San Juan Bautista Fire Department; no state budget contingency clause and more local control.
The agenda item at the Tuesday meeting was meant to give Inman direction on whether he should move forward with a more formal cost analysis or if the supervisors wanted to move forward with a contract renewal with Calfire.
“We need to be at the table wherever we go with this,” said Jerry Muenzer, a supervisor, who said he has an adult son who works for Calfire. “For 911, we did a study that said it would work. For law enforcement the study showed it wouldn’t work. For fire we have not done any kind of study. It needs much more study. Probably the best way is through the fire committee.”
The board created a fire protection service committee, on which supervisors Anthony Botelho and Jerry Muenzer will serve.
Botelho pointed to more control over the salary structure and benefits if the county contracts with the city.
“The county administrative officer said we would have more local control,” he said. “When it’s a state agency we have no control over staffing levels or the salary structure.”
Botelho also said he was upset with Calfire because he felt “pushed” when they came forward and said they would be cancelling the contract at the end of the fiscal year.
“I don’t like to be pushed around as a supervisor,” Botelho said. “The demands they expressed that day – they don’t want San Juan fire responding. They said they were a liability.”
Botelho vowed that as long as he is on the board, San Juan fire would continue to respond to calls.
Rich Hutchinson, a unit chief for Calfire, spoke before the group and said that the supervisors were presented with three options for fire service over the summer that Calfire needed time to implement. He tried to clarify which types of activities Calfire would continue without the county contract. As the state fire agency, they are responsible for the wildlands area, which includes much of the rural area in San Benito County. Under the current plan, Calfire would respond to structure fires as well as wildland fires during the fire season. Under the Amador plan, they would respond to structure fires and wildland fires year round. Without a contract, Calfire will only respond to wildland fires.
Botelho interjected into Hutchinson’s time, asking about a proposed fire fee that would be assessed on properties in rural areas. Hutchinson clarified that the fee would not be for fire suppression, but that it is for fire prevention. He said that state fire officials are consulted when a structure is built in wildlands but they do not have a funding mechanism for that.
“We are not sure if it will happen,” Hutchinson said, noting that there has been opposition to the fee. “We don’t know where that will end up.”
Supervisor Margie Barrios asked Hutchinson if the county would be able to continue its contract with Calfire if it needed more time to make a decision on contracting with the city. Hutchinson said there were two key issues that the county would need to address for Calfire to renew its contract. The first was the San Juan Fire Department.
“We need to make sure they have adequate training to make sure they are doing their job safely,” Hutchinson said.
He also said the county needs to give code enforcement authority to a fire marshal – whether supervisors renew a contract with Calfire or a new agency – because the lack of a fire marshal has led to problems in the past. He pointed to the Eagle fire, where the Eagle Recycling plant suffered a blaze that could have been prevented had fire codes been enforced.
“I have the authority to authorize an additional 12-month (contract,) but I need the commitment that will integrate San Juan volunteers with adequate training to make sure everyone is safe,” Hutchinson said.
A San Juan city councilman came forward to offer his perspective.
“Being on the council, I am public-safety minded,” said Andy Moore. “The fire service kept being brought up. The county has a county engine that sits there. The (volunteer) firefighters get $15 a call, max. So if they are out on a five-hour call, it’s a bargain.”
Moore said the volunteer firefighters meet minimum standards for training, noting that they do not have as much training as full-time firefighters. He noted several instances when Calfire failed to cooperate with San Juan firefighters and said that the department chief has offered to let Calfire see their training records.
“It just gets to me,” Moore said. “I don’t know what their endgame is. But the city of San Juan is more than happy to help the county. San Juan can help you guys.”
Two retired Calfire firefighters also talked and said that the county needs to resolve issues and come up with a plan to support fire protection, before the supervisors gave direction to Inman to move forward with an in-house analysis of Calfire versus the city of Hollister fire plan.
“My number one priority is to make sure the community is safe,” said Supervisor Robert Rivas. “This proposal deserves complete analysis. What I am looking for is looking to improve service.”

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