Firehouses spared from closing

Funding for fire stations is being sheltered from the fiscal storm that has city officials slashing budgets to close a projected $522.2 million budget deficit.

The Fire Department says it has been assured by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office that approximately $144 million that goes to fund the operation of firehouses will be exempt from the budget ax, fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said Thursday.

The issues of browning out fire stations — the practice of temporarily closing firehouses — last flared up during the budget negotiations last fiscal year, when city officials were working to close a $438 million budget deficit.

The Board of Supervisors in May approved in a 7-3 vote using rolling brownouts of the fire stations as a possible budget tool.

The last time The City closed down fire stations on a rotating basis, it saved approximately $6 million per year, according to a city controller’s report. The closures in 2004 were also accompanied by a debate about whether The City has too many fire stations. A controller’s report from then recommended consolidating the stations to save $13 million.

In 2005, however, voters approved Proposition F, a ballot measure that supports the continued funding of the 42 stations in The City. The ordinance does not force city officials to spend money on staffing the firehouses, according to language that was on the ballot.

The department has a total budget of approximately $280 million. Of that, $188 million comes from the general fund. If the department were forced to make the 30 percent cuts to general fund spending mandated by Newsom, it would be a $56.4 million hit.

Approximately $144 million of the general fund money, however, is covered by Prop. F. Hayes-White said the Mayor’s Office assured the department that money will not be subject to the 30 percent cuts. Setting that money aside means the total general fund money the department has to cut from is $44 million, meaning a maximum of $13.2 million in reductions for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

There will, however, be cuts before then, with the Fire Department needing to slash about $9 million before the end of this fiscal year in June. Newsom has ordered midyear cuts, and other revenue problems are plaguing the department. The Fire Department receives some of its money through fire inspection fees, which have been less than expected since the budget was signed in August.

Hayes-White said the department will have to sell an old firehouse at 909 Tennessee St., delete vacant positions and reassign some firefighters to the field to save money. The department will also cut back the late-night hours of public information officers.

 

Cleaving away the cutbacks

With $144 million of the Fire Department’s funding spared from the budget ax, the agency’s reductions for next fiscal year will be softened.

Budget without money set aside
Total budget $280 million
General fund money $188 million
30 percent reduction of general fund spending $56.4 million

Budget with money set aside
Total budget $280 million
General fund money $188 million
Prop. F funds protected $144 million
Subtotal of general fund money to cut $44 million
30 percent reduction of general fund spending $13.2 million

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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