Joint fire service strives for stability

After acrimony, public insults and a near dissolution, the fire department shared by San Carlos and Belmont could finally have a stable, viable budget for the fiscal year that begins in two weeks.

For the first time in recent years, the $12 million Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department will be saving money for equipment maintenance and other projects down the line, but additional costs in the next two years may cut down on Belmont’s cushion of funding.

Belmont has a surplus, but San Carlos is expected to cut several City Hall jobs and restructure some departments to pay for the new budget.

The two cities have sparred in the past over the division of funding, especially after Belmont suggested that the former 50-50 split was unfair. At several meetings, Belmont council members publicly blasted San Carlos leaders during negotiations.

Because the budget itself is based on a series of factors including call volume, property value and population, unseen costs could hurt a department with little financial wiggle room.

“There’s always the unexpected concerns, and the big one for us is getting back to the point where we’re fiscally viable, and we’re starting to get caught up,” fire Chief Doug Fry said.

The Belmont Fire Protection District — which levies taxes to pay for the city’s 47.7 percent cut of the department — has $6,130,405 in revenue this year, almost a million dollars more than the $5,352,917 they’re expected to pay, according to Belmont Finance Director Thomas Fil.

Belmont City and Fire District Manager Jack Crist said that as long as Belmont continues to see rising property values and an influx of new residents, it should be able to weather any economic swings.

“We’ll probably be OK because our property values have been solid,” he said. “If the growth continues as it has, we’ll probably be all right.”

In order to eliminate more than $15 million in unfunded liabilities, including vehicle replacement and employee benefits, the budget also includes approximately $150,000 of reserves, the beginning of what will become a larger pot of savings. The budget also includes approximately $125,000 to replace a number of department vehicles.

Leftover vehicle replacement funds will be used to order a new fire truck, to be delivered at the beginning of the next fiscal year.

Belmont Councilman and Fire Board Commissioner Warren Lieberman said that while the department still has debts to repay, it is finally on the right path.

The Fire Board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. today in Belmont City Hall, Room 210, One Twin Pines Lane.

jgoldman@examiner.com

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