Time to Put Safety on the Front Burner

(Originally published in the Alameda Sun January 4, 2013)

Now that City Council has approved hiring a new fire captain to serve as “disaster preparedness coordinator” at a cost of $218,000 per year, it is only meet, right, and salutary that the City fast-track the project to build a new fire station no. 3 and emergency operations center.

True, plans for these facilities were included in the Measure C sales tax increase proposal that voters rejected in June.  But so were plans for hiring a disaster preparedness coordinator.  Voter rejection of Measure C didn’t stop the City from pursuing the latter; why should it deter the City from pursuing the former?

The new coordinator will need a place to work, and it would show disrespect to put him in the basement of the police department where the current EOC is located.  Nor should the firefighters serving central Alameda endure any longer the ignominy of operating out of a private home like Revolutionary War soldiers.  Nothing less than an up-to-date EOC and a state-of-the-art fire station are required to keep the City safe.

Once the new fire station is built, it will need to be equipped and staffed.  New fire trucks must be bought to take advantage of the two or three drive-through vehicle bays contemplated for the facility.  Trained personnel, supervised by one or more captains, will be needed to operate the trucks.  As usual, the City should rely on IAFF local president Dom Weaver to determine the appropriate staffing levels.

The cost of building, equipping, and staffing a new fire station and EOC is insignificant.  Construction is estimated to cost only $6.5 million, up from the $4.5 million estimated for Measure C, which just goes to show how rapidly costs can rise when voters don’t go along with a staff recommendation.  And the new fire trucks and additional personnel will boost the tab by only a million or so.

Of course, a handful of naysayers – probably CPAs or Republicans – may ask how the City will pay these costs.

The short answer is, Who cares? The old Council did not hesitate to add $1.6 million to the deficit by approving the police and fire union contracts. The new Council can show its own commitment to public safety by putting the City deeper in the hole.  All it means is that the general fund will run out of money a little sooner.

But a bit of off-the-wall thinking should quiet the moneymen.  The City owns a variety of assets that are not generating revenue.  Put those assets to work and there will be enough money to fund public safety projects – and maybe even to give firefighters a decent raise.

Take City Hall.  This edifice now houses offices for City departments, some of which provide non-essential services.  Close these departments, and space will become available for lease to revenue-generating private enterprises.

The City Attorney’s office is a prime candidate for closure.  With the Mayor, Vice Mayor, and City Manager all holding law degrees, the City does not need a paid staff to concoct legal arguments for settling union grievances and developer lawsuits.  Boot the barristers out and turn their offices over to a rent-paying business like a nail salon.

Then there’s the Alameda Free Library, whose spacious building now contains shelf after shelf of decaying print materials.  No one gets information from these sources any more, and the City should find a cost-unconscious buyer – say the Alameda Unified School District – to take this inventory off its hands.  With the proceeds the City could convert the building into an electronic media center and indoor tennis court.

The reconfigured “library” would remain “free” – in the sense it will not cost anything to walk through the doors – but various fees would apply to use the computer equipment and athletic facilities.  Like cellphone plans, charges could be tied to minutes spent online or on the court.

And don’t forget the parks.  No longer should residents be permitted to stroll through a park at any time without paying.  Instead, the City could begin selling memberships allowing entry to the parks on a tiered basis.  Members in the “Bonta tier” would pay top dollar in exchange for unlimited access.  Lower tiers with decreasing fees and access could then be created, all the way down to the “deHaan tier,” whose members would be let in for a nominal charge between midnight and 6 a.m. every other Monday.

Simple gratitude should prompt the four Council members elected with public safety union backing to put these vital projects on the front burner. If the pot catches fire, they’ll know whom to call.

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