San Carlos says good-bye to joint Belmont Fire Dept.

December 10, 2010 7:40:36 PM PST
Many cities may be regionalizing their fire departments to save money, but the joint fire department of San Carlos and Belmont is going against the trend. They are splitting up after three decades of fighting fires together under the same department.

In this day and age it's all about the bottom line -- money -- and San Carlos is no different. First, it was a police department, and now the fire department is under scrutiny.

San Carlos and Belmont merged their fire departments in 1979 to save money and improve service.

"You're sharing a fire chief, sharing battalion chiefs, sharing administration," said Omar Ahmad, assistant mayor of San Carlos.

"Both cities were able to eliminate a fire station," said Greg Scoles, city manager of Belmont.

The partnership worked for 31 years. It started with the cities splitting the costs 50-50. Five years ago, San Carlos settled a squabble by increasing its share of the costs to 53 percent. Then the recession hit that city's general fund hard.

"Our general fund is the fund that pays for all safety, park and rec, all of our backend infrastructure," said Ahmad.

Belmont was luckier. The city paid its share of the fire department from a special fire district fund it established years ago.

Last year, San Carlos told Belmont it wanted to dissolve the joint fire department.

"We have a need to reduce our expenditures, and our partner has a better financial picture and is able to deal with different levels of service," said Ahmad.

Belmont officials were disappointed.

"This is kind of a step backwards to be frank with you," said Scoles.

"It's tough to be part of an agency for 35 years and see the change," said Douglas Fry, fire chief for Belmont-San Carlos, who is trying to keep morale up among his rank and file. "What I've told the crews is this is not about any of us. It's not about the services we provide. This is a political issue. This is something between the two cities that they need to work out."

Belmont says it may start its own fire department again, but it's looking at other options as well. San Carlos is looking at hooking up with other regional fire departments, among them the North County Fire District headed by Daly City.

"The city of Daly City provides the fire chief, the assistant chiefs, the fire marshal, the training, the back office, if you will," said Brian Mora, assistant city manager of San Carlos.

Under that option, all San Carlos has to do is to pay the salaries of its rank and file firefighters. Next fall is the deadline for the two cities to make a decision. Currently, the fire department has four stations and approximately 40 firefighters.


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