Belmont San Carlos Fire Department separation a split decision

The heat is on: San Carlos and Belmont officials disagree on how the decision was made to split the fire departments that have been partners for 32 years. (Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)

The heat is on: San Carlos and Belmont officials disagree on how the decision was made to split the fire departments that have been partners for 32 years. (Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)

After 32 years of partnership, the joint Belmont San Carlos Fire Department will shut its doors Friday, and on Saturday, both cities will open their own departments.

The four fire stations, employees and fire engines will be divvied up between the two departments, and all fire personnel — minus two administrators and one fire inspector — will be rehired by one of the departments.

The shift will save San Carlos $1 million dollars a year, but Belmont’s costs will jump by some $2 million in the first full year of operation.

“It will be more expensive under the new model than what we were previously paying, but it will be a higher level of service,” said Thomas Fil, Belmont finance director.

Belmont will more than double its number of fire chiefs and purchase a $1.25 million fire truck with a ladder. However, the city received a grant to help pay for the truck, and may be able to lower costs by contracting out services and factoring in pension and benefit cuts.

Belmont Councilwoman Christine Wozniak said Belmont’s decisions were made under intense pressure from San Carlos officials.

Current San Carlos Mayor Andy Klein and former Mayor Omar Ahmad demanded that Belmont pay more and pushed for a decision ahead of the November 2009 elections, Wozniak said.

“It wasn’t a negotiation at all; it was an ultimatum,” Wozniak said.

But City Manager Jeff Maltbie said San Carlos officials simply asked Belmont, which had been splitting costs 47-53 for about five years, to go back to a 50-50 arrangement.

“We talked about balancing, but there wasn’t an interest,” he said.

Fil said he never recalled such a deal being offered.

San Carlos’ savings will come from reducing salaries, pensions and benefits for some 21 transfer employees, and from contracting management and equipment out to other cities, Maltbie said.

Base salaries will be reduced 7.5 percent on average, and employees who might have previously retired at 55 with a $90,000 pension could now retire at 50 with as little as $60,000 a year.

“It’s a much reduced benefit,” Maltbie said.

Wozniak said Belmont officials decided against changing the formula because it would increasingly favor San Carlos in the long term due to changing property values.

Once San Carlos broke the pact, Belmont’s council had three options: contract fire services out to a private company, share them with a different city, or establish a standalone department, according to Fil.

Belmont officials voted for the final and most costly option, meaning their fire costs will jump from some $5.8 million in 2011 to a projected $7.7 million in 2012-2013, the first full year of operation.

The new arrangement, however, will not prohibit Belmont from pursuing regional partnerships or from renting out their new fire truck to reduce costs, Wozniak said.


Two sides to every station


Total fire expenditures for joint department:

  • 2010-11: $5.8 million

Projected expenditures for stand-alone department (double the fire chiefs and $1.25 million fire truck; amortized):

  • 2012-13: $7.7 million
  • 2013-14: $8.3 million
  • 2014-15: $8.8 million
  • 2015-16: $9.5 million

Source: Belmont Finance Department


San Carlos

Planned cost-savings measures:

  • Retirement age decreases from 55 to 50, but package changes
  • Those who could previously retire at 55 and collect $90,000 a year until death will now be able to make their full pension at 50, but might collect as little as $60,000 a year
  • Fire management and fire truck outsourced to other cities

Source: San Carlos city manager

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