City to decide joint fire department’s fate

The future of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department could be determined by a difference of as little as $80,000.

After two hours of fiscal wrangling Tuesday at a meeting, the department’s board presented Belmont officials with three options for funding fire services that would see Belmont paying anywhere from $4.92 million to $4.99 million, while San Carlos would pay $5.25 millionto $5.33 million.

The failure of a $2.3 million property assessment this fall that would have eased the $10.3 million budget of the joint fire department has left the two cities, which have shared a department since 1976, at odds with each other over finances. Belmont officials have said they will leave the department if San Carlos does not agree to pay more than the current 50-50 split, and are set to vote Thursday on whether to dissolve the partnership as of Dec. 31.

San Carlos has tentatively agreed to Belmont’s demand to pay more, but both cities are still haggling over just how much.

“If we don’t agree to [one of these formulas] Thursday, I think the dissolution letter will be sent,” Belmont City Councilman and fire board member Phil Matthewson said after Tuesday’s meeting.

Belmont officials have argued that San Carlos should pay more because it has more residents, more land and more calls for fire and paramedic service.

“Belmont won’t agree to pay more than 47 percent, and San Carlos doesn’t want to pay more than 50 percent,” San Carlos City Councilman and fire board member Bob Grassilli said.

Somewhat ironically, Belmont has a balanced city budget and a dedicated property tax that will raise $5.6 million for fire services in the 2006-07 fiscal year, according to Belmont Finance Director Thomas Fil. San Carlos has a budget shortfall and no similar tax apportionment, San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura said.

If the department stays together, the cities hope to raise additional funds in future years by increasing a number of fire-related inspection fees. That money could be used to fill the gap between the two cities’ contributions, or to start a reserve fund — something the department lacks.

None of the proposed funding formulas discussed Tuesday addresses how the cities will pay for $16 million in retiree medical benefits liabilities, according to Moura.

The Belmont City Council meets Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, One Twin Pines Lane.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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