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Merced supervisors accused of ‘Triple Crown race’ of failures amid talk of closing fire stations

A fire truck is shown outside Merced County Station 85 on McKee Road. The station might close as county officials look at alternatives to cut costs.
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
A fire truck is shown outside Merced County Station 85 on McKee Road. The station might close as county officials look at alternatives to cut costs.

TwoMerced County fire stations may face closure this year amid looming budget concerns and lingering inadequate firefighting staffing levels.

The issue came to a head at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where leaders reviewed a set of alternatives to address the county’s firefighting shortfalls. The board postponed making a decision Tuesday, tabling the vote until May 7.

The two stations facing potential elimination include Merced County Station 85 on McKee Road in northeast Merced, and Station 96 in Livingston. Merced County has 19 fire stations countywide and an agreement withCalifornia Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

At the heart of the issue, Merced County has until Nov. 1 to comply with a state minimum requirement of two personnel on duty per station, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Of the 58 counties in California, Merced is the only one with Cal Fire stations falling below that threshold. The county, which has three stations with only one person on duty, has historically relied on paid-call firefighters and mutual aid to help fill the void, though retaining volunteers remains a challenge.

To meet that per-station personnel requirement, county officials are looking at consolidating firefighters at certain stations, while eliminating other stations entirely. If Merced County kept all 19 stations operational, officials estimate it would cost $6.9 million to hire 27 firefighters and meet the required staffing ratio across the board.

But with dire budget predictions ahead, supervisors are weighing cost-cutting alternatives. “Departments have submitted their budgets. What I can tell you is it does not look good,” warned District 5 Supervisor Scott Silveira.

“Public safety is a priority, and I know I am going to get some pushback, because they say ‘let your actions speak louder than your words.’ It’s always been a priority for me. But what I can tell you is there is only so much of the pie.”

Justin Chaplin of Cal Fire Local 2881 thanked the board for opening up 12 firefighter positions last year. He also said his goal would be to “never have to hear of another firefighter working by themselves.”

“Three days, by yourself, responding to calls, driving in the fog, waking up in the middle of the night, trying to perform CPR, getting in physical altercations, dealing with break-ins with nobody to support you. No way to call for help, should you find yourself toe-to-toe with someone who wishes to cause you harm. Let me be very clear with that. This is the reality for us," he told the board.

Possible closures stir outrage

Local residents, particularly those who live near stations potentially on the chopping block, worry response times will suffer if the county moves ahead with closures.

Former Merced Mayor Mike Murphy, who lives near the McKee station, said county leaders are running a “Triple Crown race” of failures when it comes to public safety. “You’ve got ambulance coverage that’s substandard. You’ve got deputies that are underfunded, and now we’re attacking fire protection,” Murphy said.

“I encourage you to expect more from yourselves and for our community. It’s not as if we’re on the cutting edge to be asked to go to (two firefighters at a station). We’re the very last. And somehow we can’t figure it out? We deserve better. Keep our fire protection in place.”

Assistant Chief Mark Pimmentel presented supervisors with alternatives in order to reduce fiscal impacts.

The first alternative would consolidate the fire stations in Cressey and Ballico into a single operation at the Cressey station by July 1. Station 85 on McKee Road would be eliminated by Oct. 1.

The second alternative would consolidate Dos Palos Wye Station 75 and Dos Palos Station 76. The Cressey and Ballico stations also would be consolidated. The McKee Road Station would be eliminated by Oct. 1 and the Livingston station would be eliminated by July 1.

Livingston opposes possible closure

Several City of Livingston officials like Mayor Jose Moran and Mayor Pro Tem Gurpaul Samra spoke during Tuesday’s hearing, imploring supervisors not to eliminate their station.

“Response times will be about 12 minutes or so. If somebody calls and says (they’re having) a heart attack, there is no use to call 911. You might as well call the morgue at that point. Twelve minutes somebody’s already dead,” Samra said.

Christopher Lopez, Livingston’s interim city manager, said the station in his city is one of the county’s busiest. He added that Livingston residents pay over $1 million in fire taxes for its current level of staffing, plus an additional $150,000 to ensure equipment for the station and its engine.

According to Lopez, county officials have said more than $750,000 will be needed to keep Livingston’s station open with budgeted costs of around $2.3 million.“The city of Livingston and I have equity concerns about whether the city residents are covering more than their fair share of costs,” Lopez said.

District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel disagreed with any suggestion the county had not operated in good faith. He said county officials previously made a “handshake” revenue sharing agreement with Livingston. But that agreement was not supported by previous members of the City Council.

“To say that the county has never stepped up is completely false. I put a lot of time and effort into it. I gave a lot that I probably wouldn’t give in negotiations to make it happen, just to make it happen.”

Later, McDaniel added, “I just want to tell the City of Livingston that you guys are an incorporated city. Incorporated cities have fire departments. But you guys are looking at the county to provide your fire service.”

District 2 Supervisor Josh Pedrozo, whose district includes the UC Merced area, said the university needs to pay its fair share for the McKee Station, which is in relatively close proximity to the school.

Pedrozo said he’s had multiple talks with UC Merced officials about the station.“They are paying $400,000 for a service that is easily $1 million,” Pedrozo said. “(The firefighters) are going out there – 33% of the calls, doesn’t sound like a lot. But that’s just the first engine call. They are going out there repeatedly.”

Federal grant might soften the blow

Despite the difficult choices in front of leaders, officials said they are applying for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, which would support 15 additional firefighters.

That grant would help keep fire stations open and buy the county some time. “That helps us a lot if we’re able to get that grant and it staves off some of these cuts, relocations, however you want to cut it,” Silveira said.

Lopez, Livingston’s city manager, said his staff are about to deploy a survey to determine the community’s appetite for a tax measure that would support public service levels.

Samra told The Merced FOCUS although the language for that tax measure is still being determined, it could be on the city’s ballot by November.

Victor A. Patton is editor in chief of The Merced FOCUS, a nonprofit newsroom covering the San Joaquin Valley.