Earlier foothills fire station cuts cost PA money

Los Altos Hills stopped paying one-third of station's cost when Palo Alto cut staffing, losing Palo Alto an estimated $40,000 to $60,000 annually

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.

-- Becky Trout


Posted by CeCe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 21, 2007 at 8:46 pm

I can't believe the City of Palo Alto solution to negotiating with the fire fighters is to keep firestation 8 closed. The only ones being harmed are the residents west of 280 and the +/-3000 acres in Palo Alto foothills.

No other neighborhood would put up with 20 minute response times. Wild Fires can happen any day not just high fire days.

Posted by believe it or not, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 21, 2007 at 9:20 pm

The council is just using the firefighters as an excuse - they wanted to use the money instead on the new "environmental coordinator" position, which will cost $150,000 - an amount of money that is very close to the cost of staffing the fire station.

Posted by An Observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 21, 2007 at 9:39 pm

This demonstrates just how much the City of Palo Alto, the regional open space distric and the committee for green foothills cares for the region West of Hwy 280 to Skyline Blvd.. The entire area should be closed to the general public until the rainy season arrives..

Posted by Palo Alto Tax Payer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 22, 2007 at 9:03 am

Palo Alto doesn't want to spend the money to staff Station 8 but then neither does Los Altos or Los Altos Hills. Lets face it, it would be the residents of Los Altos Hills who would benefit most from having Station 8 staffed. Why don't they continue to contribute?

Palo Alto should negotiate terms for staffing Station 8 with both Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Los Altos should provide at least one firefighter and Los Altos Hills should contribute at the very minimum one-third of the cost. Why should Palo Alto pay for fire protection for Los Altos Hills - they can afford to help?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 25, 2007 at 6:34 pm

Did this station respond to today's Stanford fire?

Posted by A Neighbor, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 25, 2007 at 8:10 pm

Hanover and Page Mill would be the closest Fire Station, then the Stanford Fire Station, then the Arastradero Road Fire Station.

Posted by Danny, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 26, 2007 at 9:50 am

With what looks to be a deadly California fire season ahead, the LAST thing we need is cuts to fire services.

Posted by a friend of the PAFD, a resident of another community
on Jul 2, 2007 at 7:59 pm

To answer Mr. Wallis' question above: no, station 8 did not respond to the Dish Hill fire last week because station 8 is closed once again this year. They most certainly WOULD have responded if open. That fire should be a BIG wake up call to Mr. Benest and the City Council. We got lucky that it was not close to homes this time.

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