Friday, March 30, 2012

San Mateo County: Grand Jury Report Notes 'Missed Opportunities'

Report on fire services says San Carlos would have saved more partnering with Cal Fire.
By Kenny Porpora - San Carlos Patch
In a notice sent to the city, the San Mateo County Grand Jury found missed opportunities within the city’s failed attempts to partner with Cal Fire after interference from political bodies and stalling from the County Board of Supervisors.

The report said the city’s pursuit to subcontract with Cal Fire would have been more cost-effective, an option shot down by the Board of Supervisors in favor of reconciliation between San Carlos and then-partner Belmont.

The 2011-2012 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury recommends to the County Board of Supervisors that it should renew its contract with Cal Fire by June 2012, unless they show a fiscal reason not to do so, and include a provision in future contracts to allow all qualified cities to subcontract for Cal Fire services through the county.

The jury also recommends that Cal Fire be considered as an alternative when assessing changes to local-agency fire protection. San Carlos must respond to the letter by May 15.

The initial break with Belmont

On April 12, 2010, San Carlos notified Belmont that it would be ending their 31-year Joint Power Agreement, a separation that had been in the works since 2004. San Carlos’ decision, according to city officials at the time, was a cost-saving measure.

The Grand Jury report notes that the City of Good Living’s fire expenses had increased more than 30 percent between 2005 and 2010, and under the complicated cost-sharing formula it had worked out with Belmont, the city went from paying 47 percent of all costs to 53 percent.

San Carlos and Belmont experienced many failed negotiations and the decision to dissolve the relationship became official.

Searching for options

On September 16, 2010, the city hired TriData Consulting Firm out of Arlington, Va. to analyze options for thee city. About a month later, TriData submitted an 85-page report to the city, outlining several options, the best of which, they said, would be Cal Fire, due to their ability to hire displaced employees, soething other partnering cities
could not do.

"That may be a deciding factor, said assistant city manager Brian Moura in October of 2010. "But it may not be. It depends on what the formal and final proposals look like. This is all still in the early stages."

The fire union took concern with Cal Fire's hiring of all fire personnel, however, due to their significantly lower salaries; salaries city employees would inherit should they contract with the county.

According to the Grand Jury report, often times, firefighters salaries are maintained even when picked up by Cal Fire.

Other suggestions from the consultant firm included the city's partnering with neighbor Redwood City, or possibly a three way split among San Carlos, Redwood City, and Cal Fire.

This distribution of services among the three, had it happened, would have limited station and equipment costs and would have allowed for more personnel to be hired, making it possible for the station to respond to more than one call at a time, said assistant city manager Brian Moura, at the time.

San Carlos sent out a call for RFP’s, and sought out proposals from North County Fire, San Mateo, and Menlo Park, in addition to Redwood City and Cal Fire.

A change of heart

On November 19, 2010, the city received a fax from Cal Fire director Ken Pilmott saying Cal Fire will not be submitting a bid for proposal, a decision that has surprised San Carlos officials.

“To be successful, it is imperative that there is support for these agreements amongst all the stakeholders, including public officials, local citizens and labor organizations,” said Ken Pimlott, the Cal Fire director in a fax sent to assistant city manager Brian Moura.

“In the case of the City of San Carlos, there is concern from regional Legislative members and significant opposition from local labor organizations. Lacking support from these stakeholders, a proposed partnership could face legal challenges and be cast in a negative light by the media and the community.”

The letter sent concern through government officials, who were expecting a bid from Cal Fire due to previous interest, and an unofficial bid sent back in March of 2010.

“Something changed in the last seven days,” said assistant city manager Brian Moura told San Carlos Patch at the time the letter was sent. “Cal Fire submitted an unofficial proposal in March of this year, and two others in previous years when we’ve attempted this, so something changed in the last few days and I don’t know what it is.”

San Carlos looks to Board of Supervisors for help

On January 17, 2011, city officials sat before the Boards Finance and Operations Committee and asked to contract with Cal Fire. The County instead wanted to see the city work out its relationship wih Belmont. Mediation between the two cities was suggested by Supervisors Carole Groom and Adrienne Tissier.

Mediation failed. The city went on to contract with Redwood City. The Grand Jury report states that while savings were made, the savings would have been greater had the city been allowed to subcontract with Cal Fire under the county’s contract.

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