Against the backdrop of two tragic and potentially avoidable building fires in Oakland, the Alameda City Council approved funding to reinstate a Fire Prevention Bureau that was gutted seven years ago due to budget constraints due to the Great Recession.
The council voted, 4-1, to allocate funding for the hiring of three firefighters at an annual cost of $800,000, in addition, to $188,000 in start-up costs.
Previously just a single fire inspector was tasked with determining whether Alameda's residential and commercial buildings are safe. Currently, a backlog of roughly 3,000 buildings in need of inspections exists, endangering residents and placing the city at risk for being liable in the event of an accident, said Alameda Fire Chief Doug Long. The lack of fire inspection services has cost Alameda annual revenue of more than $300,000 for fire inspection fees, he said.
The number of fire inspectors, however, is still lower than the seven in 2009, when the city council decided to shift money to other departments in the face of rising deficits.
Alameda Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said the proposal Tuesday night "goes to the heart of public safety" and in reference to the Ghost Ship fire and reports of possible negligence by the city of Oakland, she added, "Oakland is not a city I want to emulate. I don't want that kind of headline in Alameda, or any city." Despite the cost of the Fire Prevention Bureau, Ashcraft said, the city can find money to fund the proposal. "I think the city expects us to spend money to keep them safe."
Alameda Vice Mayor Malia Vella voiced concern that despite the additional fire inspectors, the bureau is still being staffed below 2009 levels. She also lamenting the loss of fire inspection revenues over the years. The reinstated Fire Prevention Bureau is estimated to generation an additional $355,000 in fee revenues per year, said Long.
Alameda Councilmember Jim Oddie added the proposal to strengthened public safety is the city's top priority. He also questioned whether the continued lack of a full-time fire marshal might affect efficient management of the bureau. The plan includes the hiring of a a fire captain who will serve as part-time assistant fire marshal and two fire inspectors.
A typical feature of Alameda politics is constant opposition between some fiscally-conservative Alamedans who are deeply concerned with rising unfunded liabilities and the powerful Alameda Firefighters' Union. Perhaps due to the recent Ghost Ship fire that took 36 lives last December and the San Pablo Avenue fire in Oakland last month that killed 4, the amount of antagonism was low, but not entirely absent.
Alameda City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy said the additional hires would add to already ballooning annual public employee pension costs estimated at $3 million this year. Kennedy urged the council to delay the vote and, instead, include the discussion in upcoming fiscal-year budget hearings. "Every department has been asked to do more with less," he said.
Dan Robertson, president of the Oakland Firefighters Union, told the council, "There's no such thing as doing more with less in firefighting." Robertson said he was a on duty the night of the Ghost Ship fire tragedy. He warned the council, "You don't want to make the mistakes Oakland made and will make."
The council's lone opposition came from Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, who worried about the additional number of sworn firefighters further impacting the city's $113 million in owed pension and retirement benefits. "I actually have to balance the budget every year," said Spencer, while raising alarms about the city's finances. "I will submit our city does not have a viable long-term [budget] plan." Instead, Spencer called for the hiring of less costly non-sworn fire inspectors for the job. "I want firefighters fighting fires, not doing inspections," she added.
Alameda Councilmember Frank Matarrese voted in support of the allocation, but also voiced skepticism over the sole reliance on sworn fire inspectors. He cited the successful use of both sworn and non-sworn inspectors in Oakland and Fremont. Fire Chief Long, though, insisted a drawback for using non-sworn inspectors is a lack of firefighting training that precludes them from being sent to potentially dangerous fires.