News

Budget fire vs. house fires

Cuts to first-responders a future possibility, but officials say public safety would suffer

Balancing the city's budget this year and next doesn't appear to require any too-painful budget cuts. But in the longer run, if the economy doesn't recover, significant cuts to fire and police services may become necessary.

In preparation for this worst-case scenario, city manager Kevin Duggan has made a list of $2.5 million in possible cuts to Mountain View's first-responders.

"We aren't recommending those things at this time but they can't be foreclosed either," Duggan said. "We're not going to put the public in jeopardy, that's our highest priority."

Some City Council members agree, and are concerned about what the cuts, part of a $4.5 million list of budget proposals dubbed "tier two," would do to response times to 911 calls.

According to staff reports, the cuts could result in the minimum number of firefighters on duty decreasing from 21 to 19, while eight of the city's 100 police officers, including five community service officers, would have to look for work elsewhere. If these cuts aren't enough, more severe tier three cuts could result in more cuts to public safety through departmental reorganization.

City officials say the police and fire department budgets have grown disproportionately over the years to about half of the city's budget, which is not unusual for municipalities. Without cuts to public safety, the city will have to cut other basic services, such as library services, regular park and street maintenance, planning staff and code inspectors among other things.

"Are they OK with not having as many police officers?" Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga asked of the public. "Are they OK with park lawns not being cut as often?"

In total, the city manager's tier one and tier two cuts equal only $8 million worth of solutions to a deficit that is expected to grow to at least $10 million for 2009-10 and 2010-11 combined. The city manager has already proposed using $2 million in reserves. But now the state government appears to want another $2 million from the city's general fund to balance its own budget.

Low response times

According to city data, in 2008, police responded to serious emergencies, such as shootings, within three and a half minutes on average. Firefighters responded to fires and medical emergencies in four and a half minutes on average.

Abe-Koga said it takes eight minutes on average for paramedics to respond to medical emergencies in cities like San Jose.

"Are folks OK if it goes to eight minutes?" asked Abe-Koga, whose own father narrowly survived a heart attack. "People can die within those four minutes. Those are the real effects these cuts can cause. It is important for the community to give us direction."

Firefighter's Association president John Miguel said first-responders try to make it to a medical emergency within four minutes because that is how long the human body can survive without air. He said the current staffing level for firefighters has saved lives. For example, he said, two people were rescued from burning buildings over the past year, however, "I don't think we would have been able to get them out with the reduced staffing."

Less staffing could also mean slower response times to medical emergencies, especially when firefighters are busy with a fire. To know the exact effects, says police chief and interim fire chief Scott Vermeer, more study is required.

While the suggested fire department cuts could save the city $850,000 in overtime expenses, Mountain View would have a minimum of 19 firefighters on duty instead of 21. Miguel said the city would lose its rescue vehicle most of the time, which is one of the busiest in the city and responded to 1,500 of the city's 5,000 calls last year, usually accompanying a regular fire truck -- a total of five firefighters. The specially equipped truck is stationed at the fire house on Shoreline Boulevard near Villa Street, a central location that allows it to respond to emergencies quickly all over the city. It is the only fire truck equipped with large night lights and an "autopulse" device that "provides compressions for persons in cardiac arrest."

Half of city budget

Some city officials, including council member Mike Kasperzak, believe the city budget for first-responders has grown too large, and are calling for a reevaluation of where the resources go.

"We have become basically a paramedic health and safety department," said Kasperzak, who pointed out that cities like Campbell, Los Gatos and Los Altos save money by having private ambulances, instead of firefighters, respond to medical emergencies.

"I have very strong concerns that our public safety expenses are now up to 50 percent of the city's overall budget," up from 36 percent in 1990-91, Kasperzak said.

Almost every other department was cut during the same period, he said. Community services, for example, which include parks and recreation, decreased from 16 to 14 percent in those years.

But others say the reallocation of funds has saved lives. Miguel said the fire department began providing paramedic services years ago because the ambulance company the city was using sometimes took 20 minutes to respond to an emergency. He said that having firefighter paramedics is now the "industry standard."

Today, ambulances only respond in Mountain View if someone has to be taken from the scene. But firefighters always arrive first.

Last year the fire department responded to 2,745 health emergency calls, excluding automobile accidents. During the same period, there were 139 calls for fires. Every fire station has a firefighter trained as a paramedic who rolls out to medical emergencies in a fire truck with two other firefighters.

This Tuesday, June 2, the City Council is expected to provide feedback before approving a 2009-10 budget on June 9.

Next week: How would the Police Department fare?

Comments

Posted by Matt, a resident of another community
on May 28, 2009 at 1:13 pm

I live in San Jose and i don't know where Margret got her information from but our average EMS response time in San Jose is much less that 8 minutes....




Posted by USA, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 28, 2009 at 4:46 pm

USA is a registered user.

Matt -- every time our mayor speaks, I think that she cannot get any dumber, but, ironically, she proves me wrong. In this case though, she may be right. Google around. You will find various sets of numbers indicating higher response times in SJ (depending one how the times are measured.)


Posted by Ted, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 28, 2009 at 5:25 pm

"City officials say the police and fire department budgets have grown disproportionately over the years to about half of the city's budget......Without cuts to public safety, the city will have to cut other basic services, such as library services, regular park and street maintenance, planning staff and code inspectors among other things."

"We have become basically a paramedic health and safety department," said Kasperzak, who pointed out that cities like Campbell, Los Gatos and Los Altos save money by having private ambulances, instead of firefighters, respond to medical emergencies.

Councilman Mike Kasperzak is on the right track. Why are we paying these outrageous salaries to firefighters to respond to medical calls?


Posted by Ted, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 28, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Mayor Abe-Koga......"It is important for the community to give us direction."

Web Link


Posted by close reader, a resident of another community
on May 29, 2009 at 10:55 am

USA,

"every time our mayor speaks, I think that she cannot get any dumber, but, ironically, she proves me wrong."

This is not by any definition irony -- only your own cynicism and bitterness.

"In this case though, she may be right." Hilarious. So NOT every time the mayor speaks? Now we're getting into irony.


Posted by Concerned, a resident of Sylvan Park
on May 31, 2009 at 9:45 pm

People will soon realize how much down time there is in the fire department - very few significant fires anymore. Most of the
stations get 1-2 calls per day, and late at night there is very
little happening. Public safety departments staff for the worst
case scenario to the detriment of the functions people use most often.


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