The city is looking at options to have its fire services handled by another agency - a request made by its Fire Department, said City Manager Edward Starr.
Both Cal Fire and San Bernardino County Fire Department have submitted proposals on how they would operate the department. On Monday night, during a special workshop, the council heard a presentation from county Fire Chief Mark Hartwig.
The chief explained the proposals, one that could bring the city an annual cost savings of more than $400,000.
"We propose a regionalized service delivery model we think would apply and work in Montclair," Hartwig said. "We, through strong relationships and building trust and accountability, have that accountability at the local level."
If the city opted to go with county fire department then firefighters would be considered county employees.
The question then becomes how much Montclair is liable for unfunded retirement pensions after pulling its firefighters out of the state's Public Employees' Retirement System and joining the county system.
The exact amount has not been determined but it could be anywhere between $5 million and $8 million, Starr said.
"Our obligation first and foremost is a fiduciary one to the city. We need to look at what makes financial sense to the city and whether we deliver better service in a more efficient manner," Councilman Bill Ruh said.
The county could cover those unfunded retirement costs through a loan and give Montclair a certain period of time to pay it back, says Chris Jackson, president of the Montclair Fire Fighters Association.
The association has said it would prefer to go with county because it would allow for better response times and better service.
"In large part we will have the available resources," he said.
San Bernardino County has given the city two proposals each for a 10-year period, with the option to opt out after three years.
The city Fire Department is budgeted for $5.2 million annually and is estimated to cost $4.7 million through county.
The $479,000 annual savings could come if it selects the operating model that uses a blend of its current staff and firefighters who are under three-year contracts with the county, Hartwig said.
Limited term firefighters are often younger adults who are fully certified and learning the trade on the job.
"We use them in every division in county Fire Department. They've proven to be a good option for places that doesn't have the financial means to get the experienced professional firefighter," Hartwig said.
If the city chooses this model, not all of the Montclair firefighters would be retained locally. They would be offered other positions within the county, Hartwig said.
"We wouldn't use them in the County Fire Department if we didn't think they provided good service," he said, referring to the contracted firefighters.
Another model under county operation keeps the current staffing level with professional firefighters but would cost the city an additional $533,000.
"The only reason we are looking at this is if we can save money and provide the same level of service," Councilman Leonard Paulitz said.
Tensions between the city and its Fire Department have been strained in recent years but Jackson said the association fully supports the council and the city.
Firefighters have been at an impasse with the city over their concerns about insufficient staffing and reductions in training and pay. Jackson said Montclair firefighters are paid 30 percent less than those in surrounding agencies.
"My biggest hope is all the information gets put out there and that the council does its due diligence," he said.
Following the presentation on Monday, some council members said questions still remain about the county's proposal. The council agreed to send those questions to Starr to relay them to Hartwig.
Jackson said he would prefer to have another public meeting and have those questions discussed.
"It's an education process now," Jackson said. "The county would be a better choice, but I will support my council and the city."
Officials of Cal Fire, which is the other entity to submit a proposal to Montclair, have acknowledged to Starr that they are re-evaluating their proposal. It could be a few weeks before a decision is made if Cal Fire will proceed, Starr said.
The earliest the city could receive a presentation from the state agency would be April.
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