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Atwater may ask CalFire to take over fire services

ATWATER — In an effort to save money in dire economic times, the city fire department may soon be run by the state. Atwater’s leaders are in contract negotiations with Cal Fire to take over the city’s fire department. A deal could be made as soon as Oct. 1, City Manager Greg Wellman said Thursday.

Under a contract, Cal Fire would manage the employees, while the city would construct new stations and maintain the fire engines.

Atwater crossed a major hurdle Monday night when the City Council unanimously approved a conditional agreement with the 12-person firefighter’s union that spelled out how employees would be paid for sick and vacation time and that they’d keep the same salary.

The city now just needs to sign a contract with the state.

Atwater’s leaders began considering a Cal Fire contract in June 2006 at the request of the union. The goal of the switch is to maintain or increase the level of fire services, while saving the city money.

Cal Fire officials couldn’t be reached for comment. The union president didn’t return phone calls.

Mayor Pro Tem Lesa Rasmussen said the city’s fire budget may not be much smaller the first year. Though in a five-year span, she said, between $2 million and $3 million could be saved.

“During very difficult economic times it will work out to a real advantage,” she said.

Contracting with Cal Fire also benefits the employees because they’ll have more opportunity to climb the ranks within the statewide department. They’ll also go to a fire academy to learn more about fighting blazes, an opportunity unavailable in Atwater.

“It’s the difference of going to a junior college and a private university,” Rasmussen said. “They’re educated in ways they wouldn’t have been before.”

The City Council hired Citygate Associates, a consultant to review the four staffing proposals by Cal Fire. The report strongly encouraged the council to evaluate a switch, as the consultant estimated that a Cal Fire contract would cost $2 million each year, saving the city about $175,000 annually.

It also forecasted that retaining talented employees would be difficult because there isn’t much room for advancement within such a small department.

The report, which reviewed the entire fire department, suggested that a third station, estimated at $4.4 million, needs to be built in north Atwater.

Councilman Gary Frago remains skeptical about contracting the services because some local control would be lost. Also, he’s concerned about inflation decreasing the savings and because he hasn’t seen a spreadsheet showing where the city will save money.

“I’m from the old school,” he said. “I have to see it written down.”