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Cal Fire to take over Atwater firefighting services

ATWATER -- A divided city council approved a $1.5 million contract with the state to take control of its municipal fire department.

The city projects that hiring Cal Fire to run the department will save about $1.4 million over the next five years -- a point of close contention among the council members.

Mayor Joan Faul, Mayor Pro Tem Lesa Rasmussen and Councilman Nelson Crabb supported going with Cal Fire to manage the department. Councilmen Joe Rivero and Gary Frago dissented.

"This city is not afraid of watershed moments,” Rasmussen said before calling for the vote. "The progress is in front of us, and all we have to do is reach out and grab it.”

The council approved the contract Monday. Faul signed it Wednesday and sent it to Sacramento for the final stamps of approval.Under the deal, the city maintains the equipment and stations, while Cal Fire manages the staff and deals with union contracts.

A final date for Cal Fire to take control hasn’t been set, though city leaders expect it to happen Oct. 1 or sooner. Firefighters will sever ties with the city and be hired by Cal Fire, which also contracts with Merced County, Livingston, Gustine and Dos Palos.

The split vote ends 15 months of city research into whether a Cal Fire contract would benefit the city and the firefighters. The union signaled it wanted to be at the table if the city council looked into contracting for fire services.

City estimates show that the city will lose about $124,000 in the first nine months of the deal because it must pay out sick and vacation hours earned by the employees. Projections show it will save $186,000 in the next 12 months. By the end of the five-year, nine-month contract, the city believes it will have kept an extra $1.4 million that wouldn’t be there, had it kept running the department.

This includes an estimate that the contract’s cost will increase by nearly 20 percent in the next five years.

Resident Constantino Herrera wondered if the city would get stuck with expensive contracts later on with little choice but to approve them. "Once we go down this road, it sounds like we’re stuck with whatever cost,” he told the council.

Frago, the city’s first paid firefighter, noted that a possible switch posed an emotional decision for him and he wasn’t ready to support it. "It may be a good thing, but we’re moving too fast,” he said. "This is a big move for the citizens of Atwater.”

Rivero, after doing his own calculations, questioned the accuracy of those figures. He thinks the city will only save $50,000 yearly. "I don’t care what anybody says,” he said. "I have gone over the forms. I have tripled checked them and quadruple checked them with different calculators.”

He worried that the city will lose control of the department and couldn’t support such a change.

Cal Fire Unit Chief Mikel Martin said that Atwater Chief Ed Banks will become a Cal Fire battalion chief. He’ll still attend council meetings and manage the two stations.

"The patch might change,” Martin said, "but we’re not here to upset (the service).”