RIPON – The Ripon Consolidated Fire District isn’t feeling the budget heat as much as other South County fire services.
It has a bit to do with the fact they are a hybrid district with a strong moisture of paid and volunteer staffing - as well as having a lower hit in property tax losses, plus striving to be self-sufficient by tapping into other revenue.
That is in contrast with the City of Manteca as well as the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District.
Manteca has had no layoffs but firefighters this month took compensation cuts. They also agreed that three positions will remain vacant when firefighters retire in the coming months. As a result, someone in the next 10 months Manteca will go from four full-time engine companies down to three with the fourth in service perhaps 40 percent of the time.
Lathrop-Manteca is looking at temporary station closures of its two rural Manteca stations now that a parcel tax was defeated. Four firefighters lost their jobs at the start of July.
Rather than focusing solely on the volatile housing market as a source of funding, Ripon Fire Chief Dennis Bitters has helped position the district to be somewhat self-sufficient through other streams of revenue.
The end result is the level of service that residents expect isn’t impacted and the needs of Ripon’s fire personnel are being met.
“We’ve been fortunate because we have a master instructor on staff, so instead of sending our guys away for training and having to go out and pay for it, we can do it here,” Bitters said. “And we can also open it up to other departments and districts and charge the same prices that we would pay.
“It kind of creates an enterprise fund for us with about $25,000 for the training that we’re not actually able to do on site. For those we can send two guys and then can come back and teach everybody else.”
Property values haven’t fallen as much in Ripon as in other parts of San Joaquin County.
As a result, he hasn’t had to lay off any of his firefighters. Instead, he just hasn’t filled three positions over the course of the last several years after they became vacant.
Weathering the rest of the storm, Bitters says, just takes a little bit of ingenuity and the ability to find people that have the skill-set needed to tackle certain tasks.
For example, rather than sending an engine out to get serviced, the district has a firefighter that is also qualified as an engine mechanic. That only requires the ordering of parts for light maintenance and part replacement.
Also on staff is a welder that can save money by making critical repairs rather than scrapping whatever is broken.
But one of the most important facets of the entire operation, Bitters says, is the “farm-like system” that trains volunteers to be reserves, and possibly reserves to be firefighters once positions become available by hiring people from within the department that already know how things operate and procedures are carried out.
Those formulas with a board that takes a conservative approach to spending money, adds up to an independent district that – according to Bitters – is faring far better than other districts of similar size.
“I’d like to think that we’re able to do a lot more with less, and that’s a byproduct of conservative thinking and the planning of a conservative board,” Bitters said. “They put a lot of money into the bank because they knew there was going to be a rainy day, and I’ve always believed that when we had this money coming in that we should save it rather than go out and buy all of these things with it.
“We’ve always had adequate reserves in case things went bad because we wanted to continue to provide the same level of service to those in the district,” Bitters said.