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Another Fire Merger in the Works for San Bruno?

The merger talks stem from a grand jury report released last summer that urged San Bruno to consolidate its fire department with neighboring cities to reduce the cost of services to taxpayers. However, officials aren't sure the merger could work.

For the last few years, the city’s has shared a comfortable relationship with Millbrae’s fire department, with officials touting the shared effort as cost effective and successful for both cities.

But the merger could soon be broken up, as the City Council announced last week that a proposal was on the table to consolidate the fire department once again—this time with the Central County Fire Department, which covers Burlingame and Hillsborough.

No deal has been struck, but talks have been taking place, and city officials said they are close to reaching a conclusion on the city’s options with moving forward.

The merger talks stem from a grand jury report released last summer that urged San Bruno—along with Millbrae, Foster City, San Mateo, Redwood City and the Colma and Woodside Fire Protection District—to consolidate its fire department with neighboring cities to reduce the cost of services to taxpayers.

Among the findings from the report was a conclusion that the state of the budgets for cities throughout the Peninsula—still reeling from the recent economic downturn—would make it difficult for fire departments to sustain their current levels of service for much longer. That conclusion was reached despite findings that mergers currently in place for the Central County and Belmont-San Carlos fire departments have resulted in significant savings for the cities involved. (The cities of Belmont and San Carlos are in the midst of after more than 30 years of sharing services.)

The recommendation for San Bruno to merge with Central County Fire comes as the city, faced with a $1.85 million budget shortfall, had to cut back on some services this fiscal year to stave off another budget deficit. Currently, it costs the city $7.8 million a year to operate the fire department, with the department sharing Chief Dennis Haag and a battalion chief with Millbrae. The grand jury report said that is significantly higher than the average cost of $2 million a year throughout the rest of the county to run a fire agency.

While Mayor Jim Ruane said at last week’s council meeting that he believes another merger among fire departments could be positive, he has expressed his caution in the past about the possible consolidation—primarily because the city has discussed three merger talks before that have all led nowhere.

“For one reason or another, whether the financial conditions were different, the political interest was lacking, or an outstanding issue couldn’t be resolved, these issues did not come to fruition,” Ruane said in a letter in July to Judge Clifford Cretan, who presided over the grand jury. “Although the report recommends agencies such as San Bruno consider consolidation efforts, it is not as simple as the investigation report may suggest.”

Last week, Ruane said officials are working now to resolve several issues that have arisen about the possible merger with Central County Fire. Among them are how the agencies would be governed, how the cities would bring parity to the departments’ different pay scales and how cost savings could be achieved.

The complexity of the matter is also an issue that concerns City Manager Connie Jackson.

“Our position is that County-wide regional consolidation as recommended by the Grand Jury is not the only way—and may possibly not be the best way to achieve the desirable results,” Jackson said in an email.

For right now, officials say there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, especially with crunching numbers, even though a final decision is looming.

“I encourage the city managers to continue working very aggressively because I don’t want this to drag on that much longer,” Ruane said.

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