Fire Station on Cutting Block

Chief Trying to Solve Budget Shortfall

Santa Barbara Fire Chief Andy DiMizio has proposed closing down the Sola Street Fire Station—the oldest in Santa Barbara—in response to chronic budget woes dogging City Hall. In a letter to Mayor Helene Schneider and the City Council, DiMizio explained that the “brown out” of Station 3 would address the $800,000 departmental shortfall for the current budget year, and the $2.1 million shortfall projected for the Fire Department alone for the 2011 fiscal year. The chief said the station house could be closed as soon as March 1. DiMizio noted that even with the Jesusita Fire, last year was a slow fire season and the department received $1 million less in mutual aid reimbursements from other fire departments than projected. He acknowledged service levels would be affected by such a closure, but said response times would remain in the acceptable range for 90 percent of calls for service.

Captain Jon Turner, president of the firefighters union, said the brownout would have immediate adverse consequences. Currently, he said, the department responses to 90 percent of calls within four minutes. With the closure of the Sola Street station, that service level would drop to 4-to-6 minutes. “Seconds count,” Turner warned. In two minutes, fires flare out of control, he said, and people who could otherwise be saved experience brain death. Turner added that the Fire Department has already experienced a significant reduction, shrinking from 125 total employees to 112 in the past eight years while the bargaining unit dropped from 111 to 94.

With City Hall bracing for a $9 million budget shortfall next year, the police and fire chiefs have been asked to figure out how to cut their departments by 10 percent. Other department heads have been asked to cut by 12 percent. To achieve these cuts without layoffs, city budget analysts estimate city employees would have to accept across the board pay cuts of 13.5 percent. Turner said he’s not prepared to accept any pay cuts without a firm understanding of what protections were achieved and for how long. He also suggested there were reserves City Hall could dip into to help bridge some of the budget gap. While proposed cuts to the Fire Department have been thrust into the public eye, all city department heads will be presenting their own tales of grief this Thursday afternoon, February 25, at a special City Council meeting dedicated to next year’s budget.

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