Saturday, July 4, 2015

Station Down: Frustration Surrounds Humboldt Bay Fire's Announcement

Posted By on Sat, Jul 4, 2015 at 10:41 AM

click to enlarge humboldt_bay.jpg
If you live in the Myrtle Avenue area, you might want to be extra careful with those fireworks today: Help is a little farther away than it was just a few days ago.

Humboldt Bay Fire announced this week that Station 4 — located on Myrtle Avenue — will be closed until further notice, a casualty of the department’s nearly $800,000 in budget cuts to help the city of Eureka bridge a roughly $2 million deficit.

In the midst of budget hearings, Humboldt Bay Fire warned the cuts would cause it to “brown out” the station, meaning it would be closed whenever the department didn’t have enough bodies to staff it. Historically, the department would just shell out overtime to staff the station when someone was on vacation, sick or in training, but the budget cuts essentially gutted its overtime budget. So, Chief Ken Woods warned that any absences among Station 4’s regular crew members would cause the station to shutter for the day, estimating this would result in about 200 to 250 closures this year.

But on July 1 — the beginning of the new fiscal year, and the day the city’s budget cuts officially took effect — Humboldt Bay Fire announced the station will be shuttered indefinitely. In an interview with the Journal, Woods said the department will still take a day-to-day approach to staffing Station 4, but that when he and staff sat down with the schedule it quickly became apparent it would have to be closed every day in July. “We’ve got three significant, long-term injuries,” Woods explained. “Plus, we’ve got people on sick leave and vacation time.”

Woods said the station should get some reprieve early next year. The chief recently announced his intent to retire at the end of January in an effort to save the department money through a restructuring plan, which will ultimately result in the elimination of a battalion chief position. The plan is estimated to save the department about $270,000 annually, which Woods said will go toward overtime pay. “It will allow us to potentially keep Station 4 open more often,” he said.

The chief said his decision to retire still hasn’t quite sunk in and is a bit hard to swallow just four years after he took over as the newly formed Humboldt Bay Fire’s first chief. The department was founded in 2011 through a joint powers authority that consolidated two existing departments: the Eureka Fire Department and the Humboldt No. 1 Fire Protection District. The consolidation was trumpeted as a way to cut costs and increase service, and it’s widely been considered a success.

But the recent cuts are causing a lot of frustration. One sticking point when the district and Eureka were discussing consolidation was funding, as the district was funded through very stable fire assessment fees and Eureka Fire was funded through Eureka’s sales-tax dependent, and consequently volatile, general fund.

The history and context of the current cuts clearly aren’t lost on Woods.

“For me, it’s discouraging that our JPA — our consolidation — has been so successful that we’re saving the city significant money. Yet, at the same time, we’re closing fire stations,” he said. “We’re saving significant dollars, service is better, and with all that in place they’re still closing a station by reducing our funding.”
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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