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Update: Fire Department Overtime Sparks Debate as City Council Adopts 2012-2013 Budget

The cost of firefighters’ overtime was a deal-breaker for City Councilman Michael Ceremello as his fellow councilmen vote in favor of adopting the 2012-2013 budget.

Update 3:47 p.m.: Dixon City Manager Jim Lindley explains that the $1.8 million difference between the city's revenue streams and its appropriations is due to the fact that the city does not include accumulated dollars in special funds as well as grant funding for special projects into its revenue totals.

"The budget shows $29.9 million revenue, and then it shows $31.7 million in appropriations, so the confusion is the difference in that," Lindley said. "There are several accounts that we have accumulated funds in some cases three or four years and now we are getting ready to spend them on projects ... that can't be counted in revenue. We are talking a little over $2 million."

The projects include capital improvement and parks projects, most notably the Overpass Project on Parkway Boulevard, Lindley said. While the money to fund the projects is not included in the revenue from all the city's existing revenue streams, the cost of the projects is included in the appropriations.

"It looks like you are spending more money than you have," Lindley said. "That’s why we have a balanced budget."

Previously: It was a night full of dollar figures, but one of those figures stood out when it came to adopting the budget for fiscal year 2012-2013.

At issue was the cost that the city incurs from Dixon firefighters’ overtime at more than $300,000.

“I think that the large focus still must be on the fire department,” Councilman Michael Ceremello said during last night’s meeting of the Dixon City Council. “Nobody is saying that the fire department people don’t work hard, don’t work a lot of hours, but it’s not addressing how we reduce over $300,000 in overtime that is a large concern. To sit here and play fiddle and feel sorry for people is the wrong thing to do. The only method for addressing this is to increase our volunteer contingent.”

The issues of staffing, overtime and other fire-department-related budgetary items were discussed at a special budget workshop held on May 24. Ceremello advocated both during that meeting and last night for the to develop a more robust volunteer firefighter program.

Currently, the department is run as a hybrid crew with 18 full-time firefighters and 15 volunteers. Ceremello said that the addition of several volunteer firefighters was the way to close the overtime gap for the city.

The budget that the city’s Finance Director and Technology Director Joan Michaels-Aguilar presented to the city council last night contains a balanced General Fund. However, if taken into account all of the city’s funds, the budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 contains $29.9 million in revenue, while containing $31.7 million in appropriations.

The General Fund is the city’s lifeblood. It’s out of this fund that the city manages to pay for its vital services. The Dixon Fire and Police Departments account for the lion’s share of the portion of the General Fund allocated to labor costs (78 percent of the General Fund goes to these costs).

The police department takes up 31 percent of that amount, while the fire department is allocated 25 percent. To help offset its labor costs, the fire department is currently applying for two grants. The grants would allow the department to hire three full-time firefighters and make improvements to its volunteer program.

The grants do not address the problem, Ceremello said.

“We have a place in the county called Solano Community College and they do have a training program for volunteers and I have been speaking to those people and they have been applying in San Francisco, Napa, why is it that we can’t get them to volunteer here?” Ceremello asked. “ I’m not going to balance the budget on the backs of other departments. I’m not telling this fire department that we need to cut their hours, other than overtime hours. I think that when you have regular firefighters making almost as much as the chief is making, there’s a problem there. Either we are going to say we are going to pay the overtime or we are going to address the situation.”

Ceremello said he would agree to adopt the budget if the rest of the council agreed to direct Chief Aaron McAlister to look into expanding the volunteer program.

Councilman Thom Bogue said that he didn’t feel that the minimal staffing level should be comprised of volunteer firefighters.

“You would use volunteers to help maintain a more full and complete department,” Bogue said.

Councilman Rick Fuller also raised some concerns.

“Some of the reasons they don’t volunteer is that there are two-income families,” Fuller said. “It’s difficult to get them to volunteer. The community college provides people who are in training but they are in training, they are not trained up, they can’t go out and serve on a full fire crew.”

Fuller also raised some liability issues if an untrained firefighter were to be injured in the line of duty while serving in Dixon.

“I don’t think we can ask the fire department to solve their overtime problem right now and completely solve it until they can figure out what is going to be the process for them coming up with more volunteers,” Fuller said.

Mayor Jack Batchelor said that the chief is already running a hybrid program and that he is confident that the grants will come through and help solve their overtime problem.

The budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 passed without Ceremello’s request by a margin of  4-1, with Ceremello casting the lone dissenting vote.

Take a look at the staff report attached to this story for a full run-down of the budget

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Demo June 13, 2012 at 08:11 PM
To be a firefighter requires a tremendous amount of training. This training goes on for the entire time a person is a firefighter, volunteer or paid. When a firefighter is seriously injured or worse dies at an incident an investigation is done. The fire department must provide training records for the firefighter that was injured. If they cannot they risk large substantial fines and lawsuits. Think about the time required to be efficient and effective in structure, wild land, rescues including vehicle extrication, low/high angel, and any other position a person can become entangled in, Haz-Mat, medical emergencies and I can go on and on. My point is to be professional and effective requires daily training and somewhere between 20-40 hours a month minimum. I know very few if any people that have that time to donate to a city, county or district. To put these people at risk because we don't want to pay professionals is criminal. You would not want volunteer police officers why or what is the difference. I do not want to be the fire chief that has to inform a family their husband/ father is dead because we did not provide sufficient training and be because of that he has perished in a fire. I also don't want to then go through an investigation that could cause me to go to jail because I didn't make sure he was trained in every aspect of what firefighters encounter on a daily basis. The time of volunteer firefighters as passed.
Bil Paul June 14, 2012 at 04:16 AM
The plain unvarnished fact of local firefighting is that most calls these days are medical or motor-vehicle-accident related. Due to smoke alarms and less cigarette smoking and better fire danger awareness, there are very few house fires in Dixon anymore. If anything these days, firefighters need to be trained to become paramedics. This requires a lot of training -- something the volunteers would not have the time (or possibly money) to undergo. But the volunteers can take care of some of the more routine duties (like checking and maintaining equipment) around the fire station, if they're willing. The other fact about firefighting is that when firefighters aren't out on a call, or not in training, or not exercising, they can be doing simple chores like cleaning the station, or making a meal, or they can just be watching TV. They get paid quite a lot to be doing simple stuff like this -- but they have to be ready for any emergency, even if it seldom happens.
Burt noon June 14, 2012 at 05:13 AM
Counting on volunteers to solve the budget problem is a poor idea. With new state and national firefighting standards, the amount of qualified volunteer firefighter is very low. Having a large pool of volunteers is a thing of the past. Often it lowers the level of service to the community using volunteers.
Noe Lopez June 14, 2012 at 09:47 PM
There is only 1 way to eliminate overtime. Hire or reduce the level of service. The Dixon Fire Department is already understaffed. NFPA standards read that it takes 12 Firefighters to effectively and safely extinguish a single family residential structure fire. Dixon Fire staffs 5 personnel a day. Way below the minimum. These Firefighters are already doing WAY more with less then any fire department in the area. The city should be thinking about how to acquire more firefighters instead of lowering the quality of service it currently provides.

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