If not now, then when? At some we will need to have this discussion. In most cities services like parks, fire, and police are under one umbrella and that local body controls everything. Elk Grove is a fairly young city, only turning 13 this year, and has had it’s share of growing pains that included a city council that was not popular with a lot of citizens. 4 of the original 5 are now gone and the lone remaining council member, Jim Cooper is running for Assembly in 2014. By most accounts the current city council has done a much better job, of course depending upon who you ask. If you ask the regulars at the council meetings you will likely get a different answer because to most, development is an evil word and most all should not be approved. I bring this up first because over the years on our website or others, whenever the topic of merging the parks and fire with the city comes up, the first comments are about how people don’t trust the city, and how they are afraid of what the city will do with the parks and fire. Much of that is based on the initial city council who were not responsive and lacked transparency. Also the initial council seemed to be controlled by a city manager and contracted planning staff.
During this time the CSD has for the most part received a pass from most local activists who do not hold the CSD board to the same level of accountability that they do the city council, in my opinion. In discussions on this topic I always got the feeling that people were afraid to criticize the CSD out of fear it would fuel a merger or takeover by the city. Also during the early years of city hood the City Council and CSD had some major disagreements, over parks, median landscaping, fees. It was during this time that the CSD made a decision that was not in the best interests of Elk Grove residents and taxpayers. That was the decision to merge with the Galt Fire Department. To myself and many others, this decision was primarily based on the thought that merging with Galt Fire would make it more difficult for the city to take over parks and fire from the CSD because now the CSD was more than just Elk Grove. The CSD boundaries were already different than the city of Elk Grove, but adding in another city 10 miles south of us made it that much larger.
During that debate we asked what were the benefits to Elk Grove in merging with Galt. The only benefits we were told about was that since all local fire departments provide mutual aid to each other, improving Galt’s fire department would help Elk Grove residents in the event Galt fire needed to aid the Elk Grove fire department. Elk Grove also receives mutual aid from Sacramento City Fire and Sac Metro Fire who have equipment and facilities comparable to Elk Grove. With 6 fire stations in Elk Grove and only 2 in Galt, I am not sure how often Galt was called in to mutually aid Elk Grove. Sac City and Sac Metro likely have closer stations.
The real beneficiaries of the merger were Galt residents and Galt firefighters. Galt firefighters received increased salary and benefits to match their counterparts in Elk Grove. Galt residents got upgraded equipment and facilities and better trained firefighters. This came at the expense of Elk Grove taxpayers. Galt residents voted down an attempt to raise taxes to improve their fire protection. The merger was pushed by the then CSD board and administration. It also had the support of the firefighters union, but many Elk Grove firefighters were not in favor of it. A lot of them reluctantly went along with it because of the fear mongering over what some said might happen if the city took over the fire department.
The merger took place and one of the first decisions made by the then CSD GM and the fire chief (who was not popular with his own firefighters, for a variety of reasons) was a name change. They removed the name Elk Grove from the fire department that had proudly served this area for so many years. That didn’t sit well with many of the long time members of the Elk Grove Fire Department who saw the name change as knife in the back and a way to get back at them for not being supportive of the merger. In protest some still wore their old jackets for events in Elk Grove like the Santa Parade and rescuing Santa at the Dickens Faire until they were told not to by the fire chief. Working at the Galt fire stations is something most don’t want to do. They prefer to work in Elk Grove.
All this matters because now the CSD board is putting the safety of our community at risk with a decision to brown out, or take out of service, one engine on a rotating basis in the city of Elk Grove in a cost saving measure. With only 2 fire stations, Galt was not forced to participate in this and will keep both stations fully staffed. Benefit to Galt, loss to Elk Grove residents.
Why are we at this point? Like many government organizations the CSD lived well during the good times, and spent money on lots of improvements and possibly equipment that wasn’t needed at the time. CSD gets its money from property taxes and according to the budget posted on their website, revenue is down about $6 million or roughly 16% since 2007. To their credit they have survived without going into the red like some municipalities. They have made cut backs. the Parks department staff has had to take furloughs and no raises. They have cut positions and some parks left to die because of a lack of funding. According to the 2012-13 budget, overtime in the fire department was just around $1.9 million or 11% of the payroll. That seems like a large amount. The district recently announced it was hiring more recruits to be able to cut down on the amount of overtime. In 2006 the CSD also purchased 97 acres in Wilton on Dillard Road for $4 million. This is outside the CSD boundaries. Now the land sits vacant, they can’t sell it and have no intention of developing it into a park. They overpaid for it in the first place and no are paying interest on a loan on the property, and according to comments of the CSD in 2011, the only income was from rent being paid by resident living in a house on the property. The purchase came at around the same time as the merger with Galt and was seen by some critics as another poison pill type of move to keep the city of Elk Grove from taking over because the land was outside the CSD and City boundaries.
I believe now is the time to think about consolidating the parks and fire under control of the city of Elk Grove. There would be some savings in elimninating some administrative and staffing positions that may not be needed. Possibly selling or finding another use for the existing CSD building on Elk Grove Blvd. It would also put control of the safety of Elk Grove residents back in the hands of Elk Grove citizens and taxpayers. It would once again put the name Elk Grove back onto the uniforms of our fire department.
You can also visit our website to vote in our poll and participate in our discussion, Should the city of Elk Grove take over parks and fire from the CSD?