Starr Projects Quarter Million Savings From Initial Phase Of Fire Merger

(November 15)  The cities of Upland and Montclair should achieve an initial $260,000 combined annual savings by merging the administrative functions of their current fire departments, Montclair City Manager Ed Stark told the Sentinel this week.
That consolidation is to be considered by the Montclair City Council at its December 2 meeting. If ratified by both city councils, the merger could take place as early as January. A previously contemplated accompanying dissolution of the service boundaries between the two agencies will be postponed until July 1, Stark said.
There is marked enthusiasm for the limited merger of the two departments among the managerial ranks of both cities. The one potential roadblock appears to be possible reluctance in Upland at the political level, where one city councilman has said he wants further figures and assurance that the change will represent cost savings to his city.
The finalized proposal that has taken shape for the partial merger of the fire departments entails current Upland Fire Chief Rick Mayhew becoming fire chief of both departments, with the departments sharing three battalion chiefs as well as a fire marshal. Each city will retain a deputy fire chief that will not be part of the command sharing.
While each department will maintain its own identity and retain responsibility for its own firefighters, who will work under different employee contracts with their respective cities, the arrangement will pave the way for future consolidations, including the planned eventual dropping of the fire service boundaries between the two cities and use of a common dispatch team.
“Initially we are going to ask the council to approve command staff sharing and to delay the boundary drop for six months while we carry out studies with regard to fully merging our respective cities’ service areas,” Starr told the Sentinel. “At the end of those studies, effective July 1, 2014, we will very likely eliminate our common service boundary. This is a two-year proposal about which all of our [Montclair] council members appear to be supportive.”
One element of the study to be carried out over the next several months pertains to further consolidation, Starr said, of “non-sworn positions in both departments to determine which of those will be subject to cost sharing. At the end of six months. by July 2014, we will decide if sharing costs for various non-firefighting positions in our departments should take place.”
Both cities stand to save money in the arrangement, Starr said. “My understanding is the savings for Upland are in the $160,000 to $180,000 range,” Starr said. “That is not an exact or hard figure, but just based on my conversation with Upland officials. Upland personnel need to complete their calculation to fully determine what their cost savings will be. This could have a significant economic advantage for them beyond the figure I quoted. This could well impact on their overtime costs. In Montclair, we are projecting $120,000 savings in overtime costs. There may be savings we have not fully calculated.”
Starr said the gist of the savings will consist of the economy of scale realized with the elimination of costs netted with the consolidation of the battalion chief function. Upland will see further savings in that Montclair will “pay a share of the Upland fire chief’s salary.” Moreover, he said, Montclair will “initially pay for two of the three battalion chiefs.”
The advantage to both cities will not entirely be economic, Starr said. “Each city will have access to expanded resources. From our perspective, it is a good deal. For Upland, it will not provide them with the half million dollars in savings they are looking for in dealing with their budget issues, but it will represent at least $160,000 in cost reductions. And they will reap improved fire protection.”
An earlier envisioned benefit to the merger, Starr said, was that “the response to a call was to be based on the closest fire station. If a call from Montclair came in where the closest station was in Upland, then they would have responded first, just as if in a case where Montclair has a closer station to an ongoing incident in Upland, we would respond first. With what we are proposing now, we will not be eliminating our service boundaries until July.”
Nevertheless, Starr said, rapid response across those lines of demarcation will take place as is appropriate and as emergency and necessity dictates. “We already have mutual aid and automatic aid agreements, so a Montclair engine might roll on an Upland fire or emergency now, if the Montclair station is the closest. The call would go through Upland first, but if the Upland truck is busy, a call will go to Montclair and we would respond.”
At present the city of Upland, with its population of 73,732, employs 36 full time firefighters staged out of four fire stations. Montclair fields 24 firefighters and operates out of two fire stations.  Previously, the city of Upland contemplated outsourcing options for its fire department in an effort to reduce costs, including considering contracting with the city of Ontario, the California Division of Forestry or the county of San Bernardino for fire protection service. Upland also approached Los Angeles County to see if its fire department would provide it with a fire service proposal. Los Angeles County turned Upland down because the California Division of Forestry, also known as Cal Fire, and LA County Fire have an agreement that Cal Fire will not come into Los Angeles County to seek contracts and Los Angeles County has agreed not to go into San Bernardino County or Orange County for contract agencies.
In Montclair, officials previously gave serious consideration to the outsourcing of that 36,664-poulation municipality’s fire department, specifically the concept of dissolving the department in favor of contracting with the San Bernardino County Fire Department or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The impetus for the exploration of those options were financial considerations, brought on by the downturn of the economy, dwindling governmental revenue and the conflation of governmental services. As a result of the state of California’s shuttering of municipal redevelopment agencies throughout the state, toward the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, Montclair laid off 10 employees as part of its effort to make up for its loss of redevelopment money. Throughout much of 2010-11, one of the Montclair Fire Department’s paramedic units was parked and the paramedics functioned from the department’s remaining engines, which stayed in service. Over the last year-and-a-half, what was a 27-firefighter department has lost three positions to attrition, and has not filled those vacancies, making up for the manpower shortage with overtime. In September 2012, Starr, in a cost-cutting move that saved the city nearly half a million dollars a year in wages and benefits, elevated police chief Keith Jones to the position of director of public safety and gave fire chief Troy Ament his two-week severance notice. In June of this year, police captain Michael deMoet was appointed to the position of director of public safety, following Jones’ retirement.  de Moet continues to function in the role of Montclair fire chief.
If the administrative merger is approved and provides the projected savings in both cities and the boundary dissolution takes place next July as anticipated, the next logical step for both cities would be the merger of its public safety dispatch function, which would provide monetary savings as well.
At present, both Upland and Montclair contract with the city of Ontario, which has a regional emergency dispatch and communications center that previously set the standard in that arena for nearly three decades. But the county of San Bernardino has recently significantly upgraded its computer-aided dispatch system, giving it capability that rivals or exceeds that of Ontario.
According to Starr, “We have not entered into an agreement with Upland on consolidated dispatch, but it is an item of discussion. At this point, we have to rely on the current dispatch arrangement that treats Upland and Montclair as individual and separate agencies. If we are to consolidate our dispatch functions, we could stay with the city of Ontario or go to the county of San Bernardino. Whatever agency we go with would have the ability to treat Upland and Montclair as one entity and dispatch the unit closest to the incident. The first part of our study needs to be completed. My understanding at this time is there would be an opportunity for economic saving if the two of us went together as one entity. We haven’t actually approached the city of Ontario with that question yet. We have approached the county in that regard. The county has a different and more recent addition of technology for its dispatch capability. If it is appropriate, the two cities may want to avail themselves of the economic advantage consolidation would bring and we may want to take advantage of the updated technology the county can now offer at the same time. It may also be to our advantage to stay with Ontario.”

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