Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst could soon serve as head of the Turlock Fire Department after the City of Turlock failed to permanently fill the position over the last year and a half. While the contract needs approval from both cities involved, the Turlock City Council on Tuesday took care of its part with a split-vote approval of the agreement.
In December, the City Council directed staff to explore all possible options when it comes to control of TFD, giving the go-ahead to request a contract proposal from Modesto Fire for administration, management and command services. The department has been without a permanent fire chief since June 27, 2019, after then-Chief Robert Talloni was fired by the City.
The result of that firing was a department that felt more like “a ship in the sea without direction,” Turlock Firefighters Local #2434 President Chad Hackett told the Journal in September 2021. With only interim chiefs since then, TFD has struggled under the weight of administrative needs; the contract agreement approved by the Council this week is intended to alleviate that pressure.
Despite initially voicing concern over the contract proposal in December, Hackett told the City Council on Tuesday that after several meetings with Ernst, Turlock Firefighters Local #2434 now supports the contract.
“We had at least a handful of meetings with some very good dialogue…We do look forward to working with Chief Ernst and moving the Turlock Fire Department forward and being a regional partner within Stanislaus County,” Hackett said.
Turlock’s Interim Fire Chief Michael Botto explained to the Council in December that exploring the option of a contract with Modesto Fire was timely, as TFD is lacking not only a permanent fire chief, but also a Division Chief of Operations and Division Chief of Training.
The contract fills the role of Turlock Fire Chief and provides access to the full support of the regional fire administrative team. The agreement is through June 2026, and will cost the City about $180,000 less than staffing its own command team over that same time period.
“I truly believe that we are stronger together, and we really look at these as partnership agreements,” Ernst told the Council Tuesday. He added that other departments Modesto is partnered with, like Oakdale, are able to provide a level of service to residents that would have been unaffordable to the city before.
“It’s very important to us that we continue to have the identity of the local fire agencies and the communities we serve, and we want to support that as much as possible,” Ernst said.
The City of Turlock will join the City of Oakdale, Oakdale Fire Protection District, City of Ceres, Stanislaus Consolidated FPD and the City of Modesto as a participating member of a fully-staffed regional administration team. While Ernst will serve as Turlock’s Fire Chief, a Modesto Assistant Fire Chief will be assigned as a liaison to Turlock, serving as a point of contact for the City Manager and executive staff, attending City Council meetings and serving as a fire department representative in executive management activities.
Additionally, a Modesto Fire Deputy Chief will provide daily TFD operational and administrative responsibilities and will be assigned to and stationed in the TFD administrative headquarters. Ernst will attend and participate in Turlock’s happenings “as needed and warranted,” according to the staff report, and will be available to both the City Council and City Manager. The Division Chief of Operations position will be filled from within the Turlock Firefighters Local 2434 by qualified applicants, providing promotional opportunities.
In late October, the City Council also approved a $79,235 contract with Citygate Associates, LLC, for a six-month Fire Master Plan review/study which will review the fire department’s operations and level of service delivery. The study will serve as a roadmap to provide direction for capital improvement funding needs and assist the City in long-range fiscal planning, and Citygate provided its input on the contract during Tuesday’s meeting.
Gary Stewart of Citygate said the company “strongly, strongly” endorses the contract as the best-fit solution for TFD for the next several years, at minimum. Should the City change its mind, the agreement contains an exit clause.
“For Turlock Fire Department to get an experienced, fully functional management team is far preferable to promoting several new chief officers while, at the same time, possibly hiring an outside fire chief that doesn’t know the city, the community, or maybe is a first-time fire chief,” Stewart told the Council.
Turlock resident Ron Bridegroom opposed the contract and brought up Measure A, which was approved in 2020 and touted as a City-wide tax meant to fully fund public safety services. Money to fund the contract will come from the General Fund.
“The voters did not vote for this,” Bridegroom said. “You’re just irritating the public and I have no idea why you’re doing that.”
Councilmember Rebecka Monez lauded Hackett for a letter he wrote to Council as well, which further detailed his support of the contract.
“Over the last six to eight months, the politics surrounding our fire department have gotten nasty. And nobody on either side of the issue ever wants to see that happen,” Monez said. “I am just ecstatic that Chief Ernst, Chief Botto, President Hackett and our union negotiators at Local #2434 have reached across the aisle and come together, because what I’ve always wanted is the best for our fire department and the best for our citizens. And I believe that’s absolutely what we’re going to end up with.”
Councilmember Larson, on the other hand, agreed with Bridegroom’s sentiment. She too applauded City employees for coming together over the topic, but noted it was likely because they saw “the writing on the wall,” as Turlock has been exploring the option since September.
“It goes against what the voters of Measure A wanted. They wanted us to invest in our fire services…I don’t see any reason at this point to pay a Modesto Fire Chief to oversee the Turlock Fire Department, especially at a contract of a length of five years,” Larson said.
“This is an investment in the fire department,” Mayor Amy Bublak said, defending the contract. “...This is because the communication was finally opened up, everyone got to the table and had the discussions that they needed to have about their lives and how this will affect our firefighters. That vote took place, they agreed to this and I’m happy to support them with this.”
The Council approved the contract in a 4-1 vote, with Larson dissenting.