The Turlock City Council voted 4-1 (with Council member Amy Bublak dissenting) on Tuesday to hire three additional firefighters in an effort to alleviate the department’s staffing problem, which has resulted in firefighter fatigue, according to Acting Fire Chief Gary Carlson.
The staffing problem came to the Council because the fire department was set to — once again — exceed its budgeted amount for overtime before the end of the fiscal year in June. Chief Carlson presented three options to the Council: Hire three new firefighters, allocate more funding for overtime or close one of the City’s four fire stations.
“Right now we have firefighters, some working in excess of 1,000, 1,500 even 2,000 hours (overtime) per year. It’s pretty excessive overtime amounts and, as we talked about at the budget meeting, when you start to work your third day, fourth day, fifth day in a row, your level of acuity goes down and it becomes riskier for the firefighters and for the citizens,” said Carlson.
For the past several years, since the recession, the Turlock Fire Department has been operating understaffed and that has resulted in a drastic increase in overtime costs.
Every year from 2013-14 to 2015-16, the fire department has exceeded its $500,000 a year allocated for overtime by approximately $60,000. In 2016-17, the department spent $175,670 over its allotted $500K and this year, Carlson said he expected costs to reach $630,000 by April 1 and $900,000 by the end of June.
The Council approved spending $72,214 in fiscal year 2017-18 and then an additional $329,688 in 2018-19 to pay for the additional firefighters. This option cost approximately $200,000 more than if the Council had allocated more overtime to the department to fill the minimum staffing needs of the four stations. None of the Council members wanted to consider closing a station.
Bublak cast the lone ‘no’ vote, saying she didn’t want to agree to adding positions that would affect future budgets without being positive the City had the revenue to maintain the increased staffing levels.
“When I first started, we laid off 23 people. It was the worst day of my political life. I think five of them were firefighters. We don’t know what we have for money. We’re sitting here trying to figure out how to handle some crisis situations and the last thing I want to do is have to lay off somebody again. We need to get through these budgets before we start hiring people and then turn around and have to … lay them off. I don’t want to be a part of that,” said Bublak.
“…I’m going to caution you one more time. If we hire today, we’re carrying on exponentially a huge amount of money that we don’t know that we have,” she continued.
Mayor Gary Soiseth cited firefighter fatigue as the main reason he was supporting hiring the additional staff now and then gave a few options for finding funding to maintain those positions.
“I agree that we need to be fiscally prudent…I think that the fatigue aspect that Council member Esquer brought up is hugely important to consider when we look at this,” said Soiseth.
“Amy, you brought this up about a public safety tax, I think that’s not the route I prefer to go. At the same time, I think we need to explore other options that are out there. Looking at cautionary agreements with border development, looking at TOT (transient occupancy tax or hotel tax), outsiders paying their way when they come here and use the services of the City of Turlock…I’m confident that we can find those solutions to make sure we can fund this,” he continued.