Alameda is preparing to replace one of its fire stations, even though the city does not know how it will pay for the new building.
Officials are moving forward with the project while sorting through conflicting reports about the appropriate level of fire service for the city. The reports have raised questions both about the number of fire stations Alameda needs and, in some cases, staffing levels within the fire department.
Alameda intends to spend $400,000 on preliminary designs, environmental studies and other work within the next six months to replace the crumbling Fire Station 3 with a new building a block from its current location.
It is unclear how the city will pay for the new station, which it estimates will cost $3.5 million. Alameda recently had to cut at least 15 positions and raise some fees, among other measures, to close a $5.1 million budget deficit.
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Last month, voters rejected a half-cent sales tax increase that would have helped finance the new station, among other projects. Residents may be asked to approve a bond measure or parcel tax, according to Mike D'Orazi, Alameda's fire chief.
Some residents say the plan to replace Fire Station 3 is misguided because the city is facing a projected budget shortfall of $2.3 million through June 2014.
“While other cities are closing fire stations, conducting brown-outs or joining county fire agencies, our city is wasting several million each year on a bloated, overstaffed fire agency while simultaneously understaffing other services, including police,” said Denise Lai, a city resident who opposed the half-cent sales tax measure. “This kind of extraordinary mismanagement of our city, this squandering of public funds, is valid grounds for a recall.”
City Manager John Russo said: "We are going to try to put the money together to do it (build a new station), assuming that the studies show that the city should have four stations."
Since 2004, four consultants have produced studies evaluating the city's fire service and the location of its fire stations. Three of the studies concluded that Alameda had an appropriate number of stations.
But a 2009 report by the International City/County Management Association, a nonprofit consulting organization in Washington, D.C., found that “two stations could service the city.” It recommended closing Fire Station 3 and perhaps Fire Station 5.
Alameda closed Fire Station 5 in 2009 around the time the report was issued and now has four fire stations.
Over the last eight years, the city paid more than $150,000 for three of the reports, including the one by ICMA. An insurance underwriting company produced the fourth report free of charge. Russo, who became city manager last year, said he did not know why the city needed four studies.
D'Orazi said the city needs to rebuild Fire Station 3. “(It) is strategically located in the center of town,” he said. “If we take the station away, it will increase response times and decrease our opportunities for successful outcomes.”
Russo said the ICMA study did not consider response times when it determined the city needs only two fire stations.
"If you have only two stations and you have multiple calls, to properly address fires, you have to rely on mutual aid," he said.
Russo said the city also is studying the fire department's staffing levels. The ICMA report concluded that the department should have a staff of 86, including a fire chief, two deputy chiefs and five captains. D'Orazi said the other reports determined the fire staffing levels were appropriate for a city the size of Alameda.
Today, the city’s fire department has a staff of more than 100, including a chief, four division chiefs and 20 fire captains.