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Spending Plan Fire Department Cost Conscious
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Despite never getting funds from Proposition 172, Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District does have an operating budget in place and has started its new fiscal year.

It won't be an easy one, with revenues down and costs rising, as is the case with municipalities as well as special districts.

The half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1993, Proposition 172, was touted as being for public safety services, including fire and law enforcement.

"It was collected by the county and disbursed to public safety," noted Escalon Fire Chief Rick Mello.

Unfortunately, none of the fire districts in San Joaquin County saw funds and Mello, who just completed a year at the helm of the San Joaquin County Fie Chiefs Association, spent the better part of that year working to get that changed.

His efforts were to no avail, as the county's Board of Supervisors rejected the Chiefs Association request to allocate some of the Prop. 172 funds to fire districts and spread the funding out amongst police and fire.

"In 2006-2007, there was $52 million collected in San Joaquin County and since passage of the proposition to the end of 2007, there was over $422 million," Mello pointed out. "Fire districts have received no funding. The biggest portion of it goes to the (San Joaquin County) Sheriff's Office, for the Probation Department, Public Defender, DA's office."

Mello said he doesn't argue with the fact that those departments also need funding, but said as president of the Chiefs Association, he felt compelled to try and get some of the funds for the county fire service as well.

"The fire service got behind it in 1993," he added of the proposition. "Ultimately, we helped get the passage."

But the money never came. The first attempt by the Fire Chiefs Association to get funding was in 1994 and Mello said periodically after that, they would try again.

Not all of the state's 58 counties provide money to fire services from Prop. 172 but some of them do, setting what Mello said the county chiefs felt was precedence enough to help them get some funding as well.

Mello said he went before the county board in June 2008 to detail how fire districts are funded, specifically letting them know that Escalon receives no funding in the city budget. While he said there was support from some supervisors, including Escalon's representative Ken Vogel, they were reluctant to change the funding stream to include fire.

With the lack of Prop. 172 funds, Mello said Escalon Fire Board members kept the local budget lean, showing just a 5.5 percent increase from last year.

"The main increase is for a new staff vehicle," Mello said. "The board and I went with the approach of let's do what we can while we can, so we also provided a small COLA (Cost Of Living Adjustment) of 2 percent."

Employees will receive the pay raise but there will be a tighter rein on costs for training and equipment purchases.

Staff vehicles are on a 10-year replacement plan, while fire apparatus is on a 20-year replacement schedule.

The department is currently fully staffed in terms of paid firefighters and also recently celebrated the graduation of three volunteers, Travis Bonds, Travis Chamberlain and Jake Merrill, from the Ripon Fire Academy.

"We now have one battalion chief and two firefighters on each shift," Mello said. "We're reviewing 11 applications now for reserve and volunteer positions."

The tax override is what helps save the department, he added, with five cents per square foot on property taxes diverted to the fire district.

"Escalon has held its own but the declining economy has affected us," Mello said of being more cautious with the budget. "We don't get city money, we don't get sales tax ... without our override, we couldn't have one person on at a time. It's important that people know, they need to be aware of how the fire district operates."

The department has 10 full time fire personnel, a secretary, nine volunteers and four reserves.