Ventura Budget Cuts Burn Fire Dept

The city of Ventura is a classic California beach town just an hour away from downtown LA. Perched on hills overlooking the Pacific, it personifies the California dream. But like the rest of the state, cracks have appeared. Some are deeper than others.

Budget cuts to a variety of services and programs in Ventura have been fairly obvious to much of the general public. Visiting the H.P. Wright Library is no longer an option since its closure last November. Traveling by bus is more strained since service frequency on bus routes has been reduced. And the weeds along Ventura's street medians grow in evidence of city's economic woes.

But in some cases, the signs of decline are not so easy to see, at least not yet. For instance, Ventura residents have mainly been unaware of the drastic cuts to a city service that is not about a book, a bus ride, or a perfectly landscaped street, but possibly about life, and death.

Ventura City Fire Department's $15 million operating budget has been slashed this fiscal year by $1 million, and projects an additional $1.3 million in cuts next year. And though these cuts have already forced the department to lay off administrative and staff positions, the city could be forced to close one of its six fire stations July 1.

This could result in increased response times, said Battalion Chief Donald Bartosh. Even though the department's primary service goal is to respond to 90 percent of emergency incidents within five minutes, this goal could be more difficult to meet with fewer engines and crews. Ultimately, the community could begin to feel the department's cut-backs if, for example, the 4-6 minute window for successfully treating heart-attack victims can't be met.

In Los Angeles, budget cuts have already led to increased response times. According to the Los Angeles Times at least three people have died since August in incidents where the nearest engine was out-of-service. Although fire officials couldn't say the situation would have been different if the closer unit had responded, they did acknowledge the importance of reduced response times.

Ventura looked to improve response times when Medic Engine 10 was born in 2007 after the city gave the fire department $435,000 to bolster public safety. And ME 10 did just that, reducing response times by an average of 10 percent, said Bartosh.

ME 10 was basically a full-time, fill-in for any of the six stations' engines that was either out-of-service, being used for regular, daily personnel training, or on an extended working incident.

Funding for the engine was approved before Ventura had to balance its budget by slashing $11 million in spending. So last March when the city's pinched wallet couldn't afford the additional expense, ME 10 was forced to operate only part-time, with the hope that there would be more permanent funding by the end of the year. But when the city didn't receive the necessary funds, ME 10 was parked and added to the economy's "victim list."

And that list just seems to be getting longer and longer.

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