OCEANSIDE — City Council did not take action to brownout an ambulance in order to balance the Fire Department budget at Wednesday’s meeting.
The decision has been on hold since Oct. 2 when City Council did not call for a discussion on the department being $496,440 over budget.
The Oct. 16 discussion brought up the option of comparing the department’s budget with similar size cities to evaluate if the budget amount is sufficient.
Councilman Gary Felien suggested a budget comparison be made after Fire Chief Darryl Hebert said his first recommendation is to “fund the budget appropriately.”
The Fire Department has been over budget for three years, with overtime costs constantly exceeding projected costs.
Felien described the repeated budget oversight as the department “asking for forgiveness instead of permission.”
“I want real numbers,” Felien said. “If we’re short I’m willing to bite that bullet. My expectation is to come real close to that budget. Closer to the mark than we’ve been in the past.”
The number of city residents and calls has steadily increased over the years while the department budget has decreased. The Fire Department has had $5 million in budget cuts since 2006, and $4 million of those cuts since 2009.
“We don’t give you the appropriate budget to do the job, so you use overtime,” Mayor Jim Wood said. “Five million (dollars) has been cut out of budget from 2006 to now. You don’t have enough people hired. Overtime is a lot cheaper than hiring people.”
Unlike other departments the Fire Department is obligated to provide services when it receives a call.
“It is not like another department that can decide not to answer the tenth call or provide a lower level of service to residents who have to wait 10 minutes,” Councilwoman Esther Sanchez said.
In a September memo to the City Council and Fire Department, City Manager Peter Weiss suggested a brownout of one of the four city ambulances and two firefighter paramedics between 7 p.m. and 12 a.m. to balance the department budget shortfall.
Hebert said a brownout would affect responses. Fewer firefighter paramedics on duty will impact residents, and drop boundary response agreements with Carlsbad and Vista may be jeopardized.
Hebert said recent records from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m. show all four ambulances simultaneously in use one time and three, two, or one ambulance in use at all other times.
“Transportation is a key part of treatment,” Hebert said. “Ambulances do become a factor.”
Hebert said more importantly it is essential to have a sufficient number of firefighters on the job. In one incident a team of two ambulance firefighter paramedics were called on to help extinguish a blaze as part of the drop boundary agreement.
Councilman Jerry Kern said he would be keeping an eye on the Fire Department for the next three months, during which a $300,000 reimbursement for state Office of Emergency Service overtime hours will be received and six additional firefighters will be hired with SAFER federal grant funds.
The city will also receive a $990,000 federal reimbursement for ambulance transportation of Medicare patients, thanks to a recently passed assembly bill.
“The best course of action right now is to monitor this closely,” Kern said. “My concern is to get a handle on it.”
Wood and Sanchez said Kern is “picking on” the Fire Department and making them appear like bad guys when the department is simply underfunded.
“Three different groups said the department is understaffed and you’re complaining about overtime, this is not how you run public safety,” Wood said. “Overtime is the cheapest way to fill the gaps.”
Wood suggested funding the department at its original budget before citywide cuts were made.
City Council will address the budget issue in mid January.
No corrective actions will be taken in the first fiscal quarter.