Fire dept deal may be costly for San Carlos

San Carlos and Belmont may have saved their joint fire department from dissolution, but the choice to stay together could bring increasing financial pain to San Carlos, which already faces a budget shortfall of nearly $900,000.

Both cities agreed this year that, because San Carlos has more homes, businesses and calls to the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department, the city would pay a little more than its former 50/50 share — 52.3 percent to Belmont’s 47.7 percent, according to Fire Chief Doug Fry. In 2007-08, that means San Carlos is paying an extra $117,000, while Belmont is paying that much less.

That number is going to rise in future years, San Carlos City Manager Mark Weiss said.

“The fire department offered us the opportunity to ease into the increased cost,” Weiss said during a budget session May 7.

While fire and other costs rise, San Carlos is considering deep cuts in other areas, including the elimination of five City Hall jobs and across-the-board reductions in departments such as the Planning Department and Recreation and Park.

In the coming years, San Carlos will have to foot its 52 percent of bills for additional disaster preparedness, salary increases for fire employees, and long-term costs such as vehicle replacement and equipment costs, Fry said. Both cities face cost increases as the fire department struggles to pay off $13 million in retiree benefits and other costs for its employees.

Meanwhile, Belmont’s 2007-08 budget is flush, and the city will have $6.1 million in property tax set aside especially for fire-related services, according to Belmont Finance Director Thomas Fil. Its fire department bill, by comparison, is $5.1 million.

However, Belmont is in good shape, both overall and with respect to fire funding, due to major financial restructuring in recent years, Fil said.

Voters in both cities have turned down two chances to increase fire funding with a 2003 property tax and a 2006 property assessment aimed at raising $3 million and $2.3 million a year, respectively.

Although San Carlos is paying more now, that could change with time, officials in both cities said.

“They could stop growing,” said Belmont Mayor Coralin Feierbach. “Or the assessed value in our cities may change, and we may pay more as we build along El Camino. Or they could create their own [property tax] district.”

Meanwhile, San Carlos officials, for the most part, thought the new funding split was fair, according to councilman Matt Grocott.

“We could move down the road and maybe [finances] would be just the opposite, where San Carlos is going gangbusters with new economic development while Belmont could be flat,” Grocott said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com


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