Mountain View Voice

News - May 29, 2009

Budget fire vs. house fires

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

by Daniel DeBolt

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.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

Comments

Posted by Cuesta mom, a resident of Cuesta Park
on May 29, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Well, let's put it this way. Many of my friends and neighbors are enduring unpaid furloughs, job cuts, and layoffs. Mountain View has a $6 million budget shortfall. The police and firefighters need to come to the table and accept some cuts too. How about a little less O/T? At the very least the City Council needs to do an O/T audit and make sure it is absolutely necessary, not endangering the welfare of the service personnel, and not fraudulent. All told, some of the top paid employees make over $200,000 (14 firefighters are in this category, see the PA Daily Post 4/9/09). Many dozens more police and firefighters make between $130 and $190,000 (I counted 92 on the Daily Post list). Perhaps they can help us out of this budget mess WITHOUT lengthening response times, by taking a paycut. Or perhaps they can at least forgo the scheduled 3-4% cost of living "adjustment" (==raise) in July. This will further drain the budget. The city Union employees have not faced reality yet. We can't afford these high priced services, and they are paid MORE than in other communities. Salary.com reports that San Jose and Vallejo high end Police Patrol officers make $80 K. If ours would like to keep their jobs, maybe we can all work together. Finally I don't want to hear that we need to pay police and fire "enough to live in Mountain View", because they don't. About 5% of them do. Lastly, please don't pass off all the cuts to the people who PAY for these services (such as cutting library hours and charging "fees" for field use) we are footing the bill in the first place!! Please contact your MV City Council members with your opinions at: Web Link


Posted by MV citizen, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 30, 2009 at 11:35 am

Fire engines need to have firefighters staffing them 24/7. Either MV pays OT to veteran firefighters to fill vacancies or MV pays to hire more inexperienced entry level firefighters which actually costs slightly more than paying the OT. The alternative? Close down fire companies in the City rather than pay OT or hire. How would you like it if the fire engine that responds to your neighborhood happens to be closed down when you or one of your neighbors needs it? Personally I'm not willing to take that risk. And if given the choice of having veteran, experienced firefighters staffing our fire engines being paid OT or inexperienced rookies, I'll take the veterans. I agree that over $200k for firefighters seems high but how many extra shifts does one need to pull to make that? I'm guessing it's quite a few. Also, do you have any idea what these men and women endure on a daily basis? Lastly, the assumption that MV public safety makes more than other communities simply isn't true. Public safety is a necessary evil to some when in comes to finances but a blessing when it comes to protecting the lives of the citizens.


Posted by Cuesta mom, a resident of Cuesta Park
on May 30, 2009 at 1:13 pm

In response to MV citizen, with all due respect, I didn't suggest cutting jobs; I mention specifically having a third party audit of O/T. This would ensure that all city employees are working within safe limits (i.e. not to the point of exhaustion endangering themselves or others) and that our rates of pay are commensurate with other municipalities (not what I have seen on the web). Not only that, but that the O/T is necessary and not used to complete paperwork or simply carry a pager. There seems to be no reason we would have to replace anyone w/someone inexperienced, if others make less elsewhere and many people are out of work. Finally I didn't suggest cuts of personnel, but cuts in pay. This is similar to what is happening at all UC campuses, private industry, and at the state level. People are doing the same work for less pay in order to keep staffing the same and keep their jobs. Firefighters and police are undeniably crucial to the high level of function we are used to in MV. However we have never had a multi-million dollar shortfall before and we must live within our means. Thanks for listening and responding!


Posted by Old Ben, a resident of Shoreline West
on May 30, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers. There are plenty of qualified people around who would fight fires for a flat salary of $85K per year.



Posted by Benjamin, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 31, 2009 at 2:23 pm

I notice that the MVPD has big, gas-hungry SUV's to drive around in. How about trading those gas hogs in for sub-compact cars and bicycles?


Posted by Vincent, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 31, 2009 at 7:44 pm

That's great until you're getting robbed or assaulted and they have to pedal across town to assist you... or one of you're loved ones is abducted and MVPD has to give chase in a Toyota Prius. Are you people really that short sighted? Maybe the firefighters shouldn't carry water in their fire engines because of a potential water shortage this summer.


Posted by Budget Conscious, a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 1, 2009 at 7:41 pm

First of all I agree w/Mr. Kasperzak, that it's not healthy for a city budget to be too concentrated on emergency services. Without firing people, it ought to be possible to cut some of these expenses in a down economy. The overall budget has gone up, and the spending has gone up, and the percent spent on police and fire has gone up---but the emergency response time (which sounds great) has been the same since MV acquired its own teams. So where is that money going? Are the salaries and overtime too high?
Second of all, I think comparing MV to San Jose doesn't work. Mountain View is about 5 square miles. Our response time should NEVER be 20 minutes! Ever! If we hired outsiders, or even had fewer stations, I'm pretty sure that with flashing lights and sirens these guys could get pretty much anywhere in MV within 5 minutes. Those are my 2 cents.


Posted by Raul, a resident of Cuernavaca
on Jun 1, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Mountain View is actually closer to 12 square miles.


Posted by Sam, a resident of another community
on Jun 1, 2009 at 9:57 pm

"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.

Huh?? Wrong.

The Santa Clara County Fire Department which covers Campbell, Los Gatos and Los Altos responds to medical emergencies along with a private ambulance company just like in Mountain View.


Posted by Budget Conscious, a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 1, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Hi Raul, I looked at a map and you may be right that MV is nearly 12 square miles. However much of that is wetlands, Shoreline golf course/lake/park, office parks, and military bases/Moffet. I'm pretty sure that the areas any ambulances would have to get to are within a much, much smaller area than San Jose, and likely just a few minutes/miles away from each of our existing stations.


Posted by Raul, a resident of Cuernavaca
on Jun 2, 2009 at 12:00 am

Hi "Budget Conscious", WIth all due respect your facts are weak. Moffett Field is federal land and not considered part of Mountain View. Shoreline Park, which encompasses most of the "wetlands", the lake and the golf course, is approximately 700 acres which equates to about ONE square mile. In addition you mention "office parks". Don't emergencies happen at all of these places requiring response by our public safety?


Posted by enlightened, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:00 am

This is a generally enlightening discussion. I believe Raul can construct the proper number of sq miles - to better than 10% - but that accuracy is not really relevant. The response time in any city is related to density of stations and personnel.

Sam needs to update Kasperzak directly also - if the councilman is that much in error.

But the idea the increased % of budget should correspond to a community decision - and should result in a Measurable Improvement in service - is a good community policy. I see no society issues (like health care cost) on why public protection spending should be tied to Decreased Efficiency (more relative budget - same service response #s).


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