Saving $140,000 by reducing staffing at Fire Station 8 in the fuel-laden Palo Alto foothills dominated the discussion of the $139-million 2007-08 city budget Monday night.
The council split 6-3 on City Manager Frank Benest's proposal to keep the station in Foothills Park open with three firefighters only on high-risk fire days, with council members Judy Kleinberg, LaDoris Cordell and Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto voting to staff the station for the entire summer.
Kleinberg also voted against the overall budget, citing its fragmentation and other issues. The bulk of the budget won the support of the other eight council members.
Benest and Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats repeatedly called the budget "disciplined," noting that it adds no services, ends with a $600,000 surplus and directs an additional $3 million toward maintaining and improving the city's buildings, roadways and other infrastructure.
Across the entire city, $50 million will be spent on infrastructure in the year beginning July 1, Benest said.
"This is a major, major commitment by the council," he said.
In addition, for the first time the budget sets aside money for future medical costs of retirees, Yeats said.
Many issues related to the budget had been previously resolved by the council or the Finance Committee.
But Monday the council took time to wade into the long-standing debate about staffing Fire Station 8.
Several residents from the hills, including Sunnyvale City Manager Amy Chan, testified of the importance of the nearby emergency personnel, who address medical problems as well as fires.
Yeats also said the fuel load of brush in the hills is roughly three times as dense as it normally would be because no major fire has occurred to reduce the load. Controlled burns have been virtually eliminated by cities, counties and fire districts, he said.
He also noted that drought conditions are expected to increase the fire danger this year and possibly next.
Recognizing the council's desire for full-time staffing in the foothills, Benest suggested staffing Station 8 for 12 hours a day, using staff from Station 2 on Hanover Street.
The switch would require negotiating with the city's firefighters union, International Association of Firefighters Local 1319, Benest said. He challenged the union to solve the problem, as conditions about who staffs the station have been set by the union, which insists that highly paid seniority firefighters be used.
"If they are concerned about fires in the foothills, (then) work with us so we could effectuate that kind of (coverage)," Benest said.
He said the deal could be brokered in "literally one hour" if the union is willing.
The council majority concurred, voting to attempt negotiations with the union, which is making it more difficult to staff Station 8, according to Councilman Jack Morton, because it is not willing to reduce staffing elsewhere.
A deal isn't likely, however.
A similar proposal in 2003 incited a contentious union campaign, citing a threat to public safety that would result from moving the firefighters to the hills.
And following the council's discussion, retired firefighter and union head Tony Spitaleri said the union wasn't interested in the deal.
Ideally, Fire Station 8 would be open year round, he said. Staffing it with firefighters working overtime is also possible, Spitaleri said.
But to reduce coverage at Station 2 just wouldn't make sense and could endanger residents, he said.
Station 8 was built in response to a devastating foothills fire in the mid-1980s, but recently has been staffed only during the summer. Last year, the season was staffed for the entire summer, but in 2005 firefighters located there only during high-risk days.
The issue has long been a sticky point between the city's management and the union, which represents 107 non-management fire staff.
The firefighters currently operate under a four-year contract that began in 2006. Station 8 was not discussed during negotiations, Spitaleri said.
Also in the 2007-08 budget, thanks to an intervention by the council's Finance Committee, leaf-blower complaints will continue to be handled at the same level they are currently, according to Police Chief Lynne Johnson.
A police community-service officer recently retired and the department proposed saving $55,000 by eliminating the position. That move would leave the dozens of complaints about gardeners using gas-powered leaf blowers in residential neighborhoods unanswered and would effectively nullify the city's ban on the noisy timesavers.
Now, the position will be filled by hourly workers, saving the city a total of $15,000, Johnson said.
Another amendment from the Human Relations and Finance committees restored funding to non-profit agencies supported by the city. Now, the 13 non-profits that received money from the city last year through the Human Services Resource Allocation Process (HSRAP) will receive at least the same amount.
In addition, the newly independent Downtown Streets Team, which employs homeless people to clean up downtown streets and sidewalks, will receive $37,700.
The city's Family Resources Program will also remain staffed with the support of the Family Resources Foundation and the council's contingency fund.
In the next two years, the city will spend $1.23 million annually supporting the agencies, which provide services for senior citizens, child care, food supplies, mediation, counseling and health care.
At the end of the budget discussion, the council and audience applauded Yeats, who has announced his retirement at the end of the year -- making this his last budget.
Yeats said as he was working on this year's budget he realized it was is 22nd annual budget on which he's worked for one agency or another.