Lean budget times are prompting Palo Alto to take a fresh look at sharing dispatch services with public-safety departments in surrounding cities, including Los Altos and Mountain View, City Manager James Keene told the Weekly today.
But merging fire departments is not an option that is expected to be on the agenda.
"We want to talk about whatever opportunities there are for sharing services, but it's safe to say that this is not a meeting to talk about consolidation," Keene said. The same is true relating to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, he said.
Keene said Palo Alto already has multiple facilities that provide regional services, including the city's Animal Shelter and the Regional Water Quality Treatment Plant near the baylands.
In the next few weeks, Keene is scheduled to meet with city managers of Mountain View and Los Altos to talk about other cost-sharing opportunities, particularly those relating to public safety.
Dispatch services could provide one such opportunity, Keene said. Palo Alto already has mutual-aid agreements with surrounding cities, and public-safety departments around the region have made an effort to use compatible communications technology.
"What we've done already in the region is to start to move to a standardized technological platform among the different public-safety agencies so that everyone is on the same frequencies and (using) the same technology," Keene said.
Palo Alto has long been planning to build a new public-safety building that would replace the city's undersized and seismically unsound police headquarters. But the economic downturn, which ushered in several years of budget deficits, has forced the city to set aside the plan and consider other options.
With the public-safety-building project on hold, Keene said he decided to reach out to Mountain View and Los Altos to discuss opportunities for sharing resources.
Over the past month, the topic of changing Palo Alto's model for delivering public-safety services emerged during hearings on the city's 2011 budget, which the City Council adopted Monday night.
Retired Fire Chief Nick Marinaro, whose last day on the job was Tuesday, told the council's Finance Committee at a May meeting that the city could save money by eliminating his position and having a Public Safety Director oversee both the fire and police departments. Marinaro did not recommend that, however.
On June 25, Keene named Police Chief Dennis Burns as the city's interim fire chief, an appointment that effectively makes Burns the city's public safety director. Keene specified that the city does not intend to merge the two departments and said Burns would only remain in this position until the city finds a new fire chief.
In a separate process, the city is also hiring a consultant to evaluate staffing levels in the Fire Department. This study is being done against a backdrop of the firefighters' union local pushing an initiative for the November election that would freeze closure of fire stations or reduction of personnel without a citywide vote.
Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil told the Weekly that the consultant's study is scheduled for a fall release. The study is expected to take a look at possible efficiencies, including examining the department's existing mutual-aid agreements with other jurisdictions.
But the study is not exploring the possibility of merging Palo Alto's Fire Department with those in other cities, she said.
"We like having our own Fire Department," Antil said.