Jim Miguel was seen as the guy people could count on, one reason he rose in the ranks to become Modesto's fire chief.
After eight years of managing the fire department, Miguel has accepted the top position at the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, an agency similar in size to Modesto's fire service. He starts as fire chief there July 6.
"This is a tremendous opportunity," Miguel said Thursday. "The cities of Livermore and Pleasanton are the pearls of the Bay Area. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve those cities and likely finish my career in the fire service there."
Leaving won't be easy.
Miguel has spent all of his 27-year career with the Modesto Fire Department, working side by side with firefighters in life-threatening incidents.
"I have grown up with these people," he said, "and they are more than the people I work with. ... My best memories here are the people and what they taught me about serving the public."
Miguel started as a firefighter in 1982 at age 19. A series of promotions led to his appointment as chief in October 2002.
Under his management, the fire department opened its 11th fire station, relocated Fire Station No. 2 to the Marshall Park neighborhood center, and added paramedic service to two engine companies.
Miguel took a leading role in trying to combine the fire agencies in Stanislaus County under a regional plan. He has served as acting deputy city manager for 10 months.
Mayor Jim Ridenour said it is hard to lose Miguel in the middle of negotiations with the firefighters union. City officials are asking firefighters for concessions to avoid budget cuts, which could eliminate an engine company and 10 positions.
The city will work through the budget process in the next few months and then decide how to hire the next fire chief, the mayor said. Division Chief Mike Kraus has been appointed acting chief.
Miguel's departure is a big loss for the city, Ridenour said.
"I knew him back when I worked in the ambulance industry," he recalled. "He was always someone you could count on, and he had the respect of everybody. As the chief, he pulled the firefighters together. He has the respect of the firefighters and the union."
Stanislaus County Fire Warden Gary Hinshaw said Miguel was skilled at working with other agencies. Declining revenues and other factors are making it difficult for smaller agencies to meet fire protection needs.
"Jim's vision allowed several agencies to look at a regional approach," Hinshaw said. "That is the direction that many public agencies are taking."
One example of that effort could go before the City Council next month.
In a proposed agreement with Salida Fire Protection District, Modesto would annex portions of the district near Kaiser Modesto Medical Center on Dale Road. The two departments would jointly serve those areas.
Later, a second phase of the agreement could involve the two agencies working together as one organization.
"That is what Jim has been so supportive of," Salida Fire Chief Dale Skiles said. "He has a global view, a true concern for the community. ... He has taken on a difficult challenge and brought solutions to the table."
Miguel is leaving a department expected to cut more than $2 million in personnel, overtime and other expenses to help fix the city's $12.7 million general fund shortfall. He expects to run into budget issues in Livermore and Pleasanton, as well.
"There are still a few years of difficult financial times ahead," he said. "Economically, we are forced to evaluate every service we provide and have to be as cost-effective as possible."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.