When the fire station in Palo Alto's Foothills Park first opened in the mid-1980s, one of the three firefighters was contributed by Los Altos. Even following fire department mergers in the early 1990s, Los Altos Hills paid about a third of the cost of staffing Station 8 though 2005, fire Chief Nick Marinaro said.
But that wasn't enough when the city's income dried up following the 2001 dot-com bust, and city management proposed cutting back the all-overtime staffing for the station. The cutbacks were too much for Los Altos Hills, which in 2005-2006 shifted its fire-services contract to Santa Clara County.
The contentious debate over whether to staff the fire station all summer or only on 10 to 30 high-risk days has a four-year history, at least.
In 2003, City Manager Frank Benest proposed shifting three firefighters from Station 2 on Hanover Street to Station 8 during daytimes. They would have received regular pay.
But the firefighters' union blanketed the city with fliers warning that citizens in the flatlands would be endangered.
When the City Council agreed to Benest's proposal, estimated to save $180,000, the union fought back.
Its contract with management stipulates that if Station 8 is staffed with on-duty firefighters moved from an existing station, at least two of the positions left vacant must be backfilled, Marinaro said.
So Station 8 was again staffed for 120 days by three overtime firefighters. But even after the fire season the union continued its attack on the initial proposal with a widely distributed, harshly worded flier.
The hard-hitting tactic, led by Bronx-native Tony Spitaleri, a former firefighter and now a union representative, angered many community members and contributed to the bitterness between the union and some city leaders that still lingers today.
"It backfired," Councilman Bern Beecham said.
In 2004, the foothills station was again staffed using overtime.
But in 2005, Benest again looked to Station 8 to save money. The council approved a cutback, agreeing to staff the station only on high-risk fire days with two firefighters to save $60,000.
But Los Altos Hills in response shifted its fire protection contract to Santa Clara County, costing Palo Alto an estimated $50,000 per year.
The pullout didn't dissuade city management from trying to trim Station 8 costs.
In 2006, Benest again proposed staffing the station only on the riskiest days -- or, alternatively, using three on-duty firefighters from Station 2. Higfh Risk levels are determined by the Santa Clara County Fire Department based on temperature, humidity, wind, fuel dryness and other variables, Marinaro said.
The council -- with the exception of Beecham and then-Vice Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto -- was swayed by pleas from concerned foothill residents. It voted to keep the station open all summer using three overtime firefighters.
The council directed the union and city management to negotiate and find a better solution. That didn't happen, which angered some council members, leading up to this year's efforts to resolve the impasse, protect both flatlands and foothills residents and save money.