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Merced County Leaders Vote to Close Two Fire Stations: ‘We’re Moving into Hard Times’
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By The Merced Focus
Published 3 weeks ago on
May 8, 2024

Merced County leaders vote to close two fire stations, facing budget challenges. Talks are underway to fill coverage gaps and secure federal grants for additional personnel. (CVJC)

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The Merced County Board of Supervisors took a series of actions Tuesday that will cut the number of full-time Cal Fire stations from 19 down to 15.

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Victor A. Patton

The Merced FOCUS

The board voted 4-1 to close Station 96 in the City of Livingston, with District 1 Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa giving the sole vote in opposition. Espinosa’s district includes Livingston.

Station 85 off McKee Road in north Merced will also be completely shuttered. The board voted 3-2 for the closure, with District 2 Supervisor Josh Pedrozo and Espinosa voting in opposition. Pedrozo’s district includes the McKee station.

Additionally, fire stations 92 and 64 in Ballico and Cressey respectively will be merged into a single unified station in Ballico. The Cressey station will be repurposed into a volunteer-only station.

On the county’s Westside, Dos Palos Station 76 and Station 75 at the Dos Palos Wye will merge into a single unified station at the Dos Palos Wye.

All of the changes are scheduled to take effect Oct. 1. The Board of Supervisors made the series of votes because the county has until Nov. 1 to comply with a state minimum requirement of two personnel on duty per station, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Of the 58 counties in California, Merced is the only one with Cal Fire stations falling below that threshold.

County in Talks to Fill Coverage Gaps

In light of the impending station closures, county and fire officials have been in talks with the impacted cities to potentially pursue automatic aid agreements.

Most prominently, the Merced City Council voted Monday to continue discussions with the county for a possible automatic aid agreement. Such an agreement could mean Merced Fire Department would be first responders for the area currently served by Cal Fire’s McKee Station, once it closes.

Prior to the vote, Supervisor Pedrozo assured the audience at Tuesday’s meeting that county officials will work collaboratively with Merced leaders and others to adequately “make sure that we have something to cover ourselves and to cover yourselves.”

“Right after this, there are going to be more conversations that are taking place. We’re not going to let this thing go,” Pedrozo said. “This is not an easy decision. But it’s one in order to look at the safety of our public, the safety of our personnel, I think it’s something we’re going to have to do.”

If Merced County kept all 19 Cal Fire stations operational, officials estimate it would cost $6.9 million to hire 27 firefighters and meet the required staffing ratio across the board. But with California likely facing a $73 billion budget shortfall, county officials have warned that tough fiscal times are ahead.

“We’re moving into hard times. We’re already looking at a $75 million shortfall at the county. And that’s a conservative estimate,” said District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel.

“And it’s a direct result of the funding that we get from the State of California. I am not one to point fingers. I am trying to do the best that I can with what we have in Merced County. And a lot of decisions made by our governor and our Legislature is affecting us right here.”

Federal Grants Could Make a Difference

Although the county is moving toward cutting fire stations, the number of Cal Fire personnel is actually expected to increase slightly, from 87 to 90, at an associated cost of $760,000, according to Assistant Chief Mark Pimentel.

Merced County has also applied for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that would fund 15 additional fire personnel at a cost of $3.8 million over a period of three years.

Officials should find out by September whether Merced County receives the grant, Pimentel said. Getting the grant would also mean keeping Livingston Station 96 and Dos Palos Station 76 open, while allowing Merced County and the impacted cities time to develop potential cost-sharing agreements.

Residents Express Disappointment with Plan

Although a small number of residents in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting understood that supervisors were facing tough decisions, none expressed support for closing any of the fire stations.

One of the board’s most vocal critics on the issue has been former Merced Mayor Mike Murphy, who lives in the area served by the McKee Station.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Murphy said even if the county signs an agreement with the City of Merced to cover the area covered by the McKee Station, there is currently no computer-aided dispatch technology in place to handle that coverage.

In addition, Murphy brought a letter from the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office’s Emergency Services Division. The letter, dated Oct. 1, 2023, states that Stanislaus County is limiting mutual aid services to Merced County. Murphy asked the board why that letter had not been previously shared.

During his comments, Pedrozo referenced the letter from Stanislaus County. “This mutual aid letter that is being discussed has nothing to do with fire. It has to do with EMS (Emergency Medical Services),” Pedrozo said.

“I understand you guys are lumping everything into public safety in general. And I understand that. I think that EMS aspect of that whole discussion needs to take place as well. But today we’re just discussing fire.”

Murphy said the letter from Stanislaus County is still relevant to the discussion of closing fire stations in Merced County. “These are all tied together. The fire department responds to fires and they respond to medical calls. And so if you diminish those on both fronts, you’ve got diminished first responder response,” Murphy told The Merced FOCUS.

Nicole Isozaki, another resident who spoke during public comment, said she too is disappointed with the board’s decision.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions. This auto-aid they are discussing with the City of Merced, it’s literally in the preliminary discussions, so there is nothing in place,” Isozaki said.

About the Author

Victor Patton is editor-in-chief of The Merced FOCUS, a nonprofit newsroom covering the San Joaquin Valley.

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