Amid continuing budget shortfalls, Santa Barbara city leaders on Thursday will discuss the possibility of closing city Fire Station No. 3, at 415 E. Sola St.
Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio is faced with cutting about $2.1 million, or 10 percent, for 2011, and the department — as well as the rest of the city — faces severe budget shortfalls even for the current year.
With such a huge gap, only cutting wages and benefits — which make up about 85 percent of the fire department budget — can make that kind of dent, though other proposals will be presented at Thursday’s budget meeting, DiMizio said.
Whenever there’s a vacancy — such as sick leave or vacation — the department back-fills the position, which leads to thousands of dollars in overtime. Closing the station could save about $1.4 million annually, DiMizio said.
Station No. 3 serves the Riviera area and is manned by three firefighters and one engine. DiMizio said the closure and lower staffing levels would be temporary until better financial times.
“As a fire chief, I don’t want to do it, but we’re at a position where we have to do something,” he said.
The Sola Street station’s central location makes it the easiest to cover from other stations, since it’s blocks away from downtown Station No.1, downhill from Station No. 7 and not too far from county Fire Station No. 15.
However, its closure would no doubt affect response times, training, responding to multicompany alarms and assisting nearby agencies, DiMizio said.
The local International Association of Firefighters is “ramping up” to fight the change, president John Turner said.
“Until someone tells me it’s not going to happen, I’m going to fight it,” he said. Union leaders have met with City Council members to express concern, and they hope public safety remains a priority.
The association’s Web site includes the ominous caption “Is your fire station open today? Would you bet your life on it?” over a picture of the station. There’s also information about the so-called “brown out” temporary closure.
Through its contacts with Riviera homeowner associations, automated phone messages, public comment at the meeting and walking the Station 3 district area, the union plans to get the word out to the public in the next few days.
The department expects to keep response times to four to six minutes more than 90 percent of the time. The majority of calls — 4,500 to 5,000 a year, or 70 percent — are medical emergencies, and DiMizio said budget challenges are a chance to analyze call volume and perhaps adjust how the department does business.
He hopes the work of the union will help it continue to serve the community, and that the City Council continues to support public safety.
“The money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “This will be a painful journey we’re all going to go through.”
Other cost-saving proposals from the fire department include pursuing cost recovery through billing nonresidents for certain services, such as responding to traffic accidents, as well as billing people for crime or negligence-related costs, such as hazardous material spills and certain vehicle accidents. Carpinteria has been doing this for about a year, as have about 40 other departments in California, DiMizio said.
Even if the closures are decided, there are no set start dates, though March 1 has been mentioned because of the potential savings for fiscal year 2010.
DiMizio, whose 30-year anniversary with the department will be March 2, said he would welcome other challenges over dealing with budget cuts any day. “It’s not a fun thing to go through,” he said.
Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, a vocal opponent of “brown-outs” when proposed as a possible solution in September, called the proposal “disturbing” and said closing a station seems like the worst-case scenario.
Thursday’s special meeting will be at 1:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 735 Anacapa St. The budget work session will focus on strategies to address General Fund shortfalls predicted for 2010 and 2011.
The department has seven stations throughout the city of Santa Barbara and another at the Santa Barbara Airport.
— Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com.