Noe Valley Voice May 2004

Hoffman Fire Station on the Chopping Block

City Controller Suggests Closing Three Firehouses

By Peter Orsi

Nobody thought balancing the budget this year would be easy. But as San Francisco's power elite wrestle over how to make up an estimated $350 million shortfall for the coming year, the latest fiscal brouhaha down at City Hall has San Francisco residents worried that public safety may become a casualty of the battle to shore up the bottom line.

At issue is a Controller's Office proposal to trim some $30 million from the Fire Department budget by closing three stations and implementing other cost-saving measures. Noe Valley's Station 24, a single-engine firehouse at 100 Hoffman Avenue near Alvarado Street, is among several stations on the chopping block.

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee April 29, Controller Ed Harrington recommended that the Fire Department close Station 18 in the Sunset District and Station 20 in Laguna Honda, and either Station 24 in Noe Valley or Station 26 in Twin Peaks, in order to help meet its $216 million budget. With an average of two emergency responses per day, Station 24 is one of the least taxed firehouses in the city, according to a report prepared by Harrington's staff.

The report found that San Francisco had close to one fire station per square mile, which was a much higher ratio than that of five comparable cities surveyed by the Controller's Office. Other engine companies would be able to fill in any gaps resulting from the closures, Harrington said, and respond to fire and medical calls within five minutes 90 percent of the time.

Fire Chief Says We're Vulnerable

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, who took over the Fire Department this January, disagreed with some of the report's findings, particularly the assertion that it would be easy for other stations to fill in. She said that in 27 percent of high-emergency calls, the first vehicles on the scene come from outside the call area because the closest units are busy.

"Some of the [Controller's] recommendations are of very grave concern to me," Hayes-White said at the hearing. "I am committed to not closing any fire stations or laying off any staff."

According to Hayes-White, the department's firefighting strategy has as much to do with population density and other factors as with stations per square mile. She noted that the city's population swells from about 750,000 to an estimated 1.4 million during the day. With its narrow streets, steep hills, and high percentage of homes built before 1959, San Francisco faces unique challenges, she said.

"We're very vulnerable," Hayes-White said. Historically, "the fires we have experienced have nearly swept the city off the map."

Sparks Fly Between Daly and Hall

Emotions ran high at the meeting, which included passionate testimony from firefighters and was interrupted briefly by an angry exchange between Supervisors Chris Daly and Tony Hall.

Hall, who is not a member of the three-person Budget Committee, attended the beginning of the meeting and spoke against any closures. "There's an intelligent way to go about balancing this budget, and you don't go about it putting people's lives in danger," Hall said. "The closing of stations is not negotiable."

"Balancing the budget without closing a few stations is difficult," said Daly, who argued that it will be impossible to avoid slashing city services unless revenues increase. "I want you to remember that when people say, 'Don't raise my taxes,' they're saying, 'Close the fire stations.' At a certain point, we have to balance the budget. That's the law."

Strong Opposition from Some Residents

Supervisor Bevan Dufty, whose District 8 includes Stations 24 and 26, said his office had fielded about 200 phone calls and 100 e-mails that were "virtually unanimous" in opposition to the closures.

"This is not something the folks I represent want, and it's not something I'm going to let happen," Dufty said. "There's other meat on the plate that we can go after."

Noe Valley resident Paul Kantus, who heads the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club, is also upset, particularly about the prospect of losing the Hoffman station. Closing the historic firehouse, which was built in 1912 and underwent an extensive retrofit in 1997, would be "a real tragedy," he said.

"I remember going there when I was a kid," said Kantus, who has lived in the same house near 21st and Douglass for all his 78 years. "I don't want to see any firehouses close, any more than I want to see libraries close. Personally, I'm willing to pay more taxes to pay for these things."

But not all Noe Valleyans are worried about the proposed shutdowns. Fifteen-year neighborhood resident David Brodwin said he's not against closing the stations as long as the area can be served by other fire stations, as the Controller's Office maintains.

"The real issue is, when you call 911, how fast can they get there. Nothing else really matters," Brodwin said. "We have a huge budget shortfall. We have tremendous problems. And when we latch onto a symbol--and the fire station is a symbol--we lose sight of our priorities."

Hills Make Area Difficult

However, Fire Department spokesperson Capt. Peter Howes said the Hoffman Avenue firehouse is strategically important because "they can stop a fire up in that hilly, windy area before it spreads" to the high-occupancy wood-frame homes typical of Noe Valley.

According to Howes, the neighborhood's narrow, hilly streets make the top of Noe Valley at the base of Twin Peaks a difficult area to reach. If the Hoffman firehouse closes, he said, emergency vehicles from Station 11 at 26th and Church and Station 6 in the Castro might not be able to respond to calls promptly, because "all of the roads to get there are heavily impacted by traffic."

Meanwhile, Dufty said he is working closely with both Mayor Gavin Newsom and Fire Chief Hayes-White and is confident that "we can achieve our needed cost savings within the Fire Department budget without having to resort to station closures. There's going to be necessary reallocation of personnel and equipment, but we're not going to be closing stations. That's the approach I intend to take with the budget, although it is a very, very difficult year."

Darlene Chiu, a spokesperson from the Mayor's Office, said Newsom "has promised that he will maintain services. There's no need to close anything down."

By law, Newsom must submit a city budget by June 1. The Budget Committee will then deliberate and deliver its recommendations to the full Board of Supervisors. "No one's going to do anything without a lot more process," Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval said at the committee meeting. "We won't really know anything until probably late July."