‘The public has been duped’: Firefighters blast Steinberg’s plan for new Measure U revenue

The Sacramento Fire Department is set to receive more than $13 million in new funding in the city manager’s proposed budget, but firefighters say they need more to improve response times and respond to the city’s many homeless encampments.

A dozen firefighters stood for four hours along the side of the council chambers during a meeting Tuesday holding big red signs that said “Stop Measure U bait and switch” and “Neighborhood equity?? Reopen Fire Station 9.”

More than a dozen current and former fire employees Tuesday urged the council to give the department more of the new Measure U sales tax revenue, pointing out that the ballot language approved by voters in November included public safety, although it wasn’t the focus of Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s sell.

The department needs money for more ambulances and $2 million to add improvements and staff to reopen Fire Station 9, which has been vacant for more than 20 years, said Chris Andrew, a vice president of Labor 522, which is in contract negotiations with the city.

“That should’ve been a no-brainer with this whole thing. We’re talking about a soccer stadium but we’re not talking about any firehouse over there,” Andrew said, referring to the incentive package the city is giving a privately financed $252 million soccer stadium in the downtown railyard.

The vacant Station 9, at the intersection of Fruitridge and Florin Perkins roads, is near an area with a high risk of fires, partly due to cannabis warehouses and other buildings that have been built since the 1990s when the station closed, Andrew said.

Response times are poor in Tahoe Park, East Natomas, Delta Shores, downtown and the railyard, according to a 2016 study, Andrew said.

Reopening Station 9 as Sacramento’s 25th station would improve response times throughout the city, and allow a location for a new medic unit, fire Chief Gary Loesch said.

“I’m running out of room, I just don’t have the areas to put medic units right now,” Loesch said.

City Manager Howard Chan’s proposed budget for fiscal 2019-20 includes a new $4 million outlay for 30 new positions, 24 from current funds or new Measure U dollars. The budget also proposes about $9 million in capital spending for rebuilding and replacing fire stations and buying fire trucks, engines and other vehicles. It would bring the department’s total budget to $122.7 million.

The budget also includes funding to restore Battalion 4, staff the recruit academy, and fund the bike medic program, which is “critical” to support special events like music festivals, Loesch said.

Firefighters said they oppose the mayor’s proposal to issue bonds in increments annually during the next three to five years, essentially taking out 30-year loans in each of those years, each backed by a chunk of new Measure U revenues. The several hundred million dollars created in the short term would go toward new services for residents of the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods, Steinberg proposed.

“Having a vision for the city is important, but the ballot said nothing about leveraging the revenue for someone’s vision,” said Jennifer Ertl, a fire department engineer. “I am outraged the public has been duped.”

“With the passing of Measure U, the city coffers are now flush with funds and the opportunity finally exists to right-size the police and fire departments,” said Chris Harvey, a city firefighter and paramedic speaking as a Sacramento resident.

Steinberg defended his bonding proposal, saying if the city does not protect and leverage the new revenue, it will be gobbled up to pay the city’s rising pension costs in 2 1/2 to three years. Investments in neighborhoods and job creation will grow the tax base and increase the Fire Department’s budget, and its rising pensions, in the future, he said.

“We need a growth strategy in this city,” Steinberg said. “We need to invest in these neighborhoods that have been left behind and forgotten for a long time. We need to build an economic base. We need to put people to work. That’s ultimately going to be the savior of public safety.”

The council also discussed the proposed budget for the Police Department Tuesday, which was far less controversial.

The Police Department is set to receive an increase of $10 million in the proposed city budget, including about $6.5 million, mostly from current or new Measure U funds, to hire 37 new police officers and community service officers. It also includes $3.5 million in capital improvement funding for body cameras, in-car cameras and ballistic door panels. It would bring the department’s total budget to $146.7 million.

The council took no action Tuesday on the proposed police and fire budgets. The council will approve the full fiscal 2019-20 budget by the end of June.

Bee staff writer Tony Bizjak contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated May 23 to correct the location of Fire Station 9.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.