Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 26, 2010

Editorial: Fire union initiative is a terrible concept

Palo Alto firefighters union proposal demonstrates how dramatically out of touch they are with today's city-budget realities

Tony Spitaleri, president of the International Association of Firefighters Union Local 1319, has gone way over the top with his plan to circulate an initiative petition to change Palo Alto's City Charter so any reduction in staffing would require a citywide vote.

When asked, residents should decline to sign the petitions about to be circulated around the community, and should reject any "in the name of public safety" warnings that accompany them.

The city's contract with the firefighter's union expires June 30, but no talks have begun. The contract negotiations will be the first under City Manager James Keene, who has asked all city departments how they can reduce their budgets to help fill a budget gap projected to grow to more than $10 million next year.

The Fire Department budget is an albatross around the city's financial neck due to an existing contractual guarantee that requires the city to maintain a "minimum staffing" standard for the entire department, rather than the more common minimum-staffing standard for engine companies. The upcoming new labor contract should abandon the current minimum-staffing requirement.

As reported in today's paper, maintaining that department-wide minimum standard results in huge amounts of overtime and a rigidity of staffing. One firefighter received more than $87,000 in overtime last year and another's overall salary exceeded $207,000 due to overtime. Sometimes it makes sense to use overtime rather than add another full-time position, but we'd like to see a thorough outside or city auditor analysis of current overtime practices and policies.

That minimum standard was negotiated many years ago by City Council members long gone from the scene, dating back to at least the very early 1980s. These staffing guarantees are by negotiated contract and cannot be altered unilaterally by city management or the council.

But the current initiative-petition drive being pushed by the firefighters union would eliminate all vestige of council and management control over the department's budget and operations, and lock in job protections for one component of city operations.

This in itself would be terrible public policy, giving one segment of city employees a rigid protective wall locked into the City Charter. This "privileged class" of employee would be eyed by other employees with envy, while some members of the public, already appalled by the overall level of pay and benefits for public employees generally, become increasingly bitter.

We simply cannot fathom what the union's local leadership was thinking in trying to place this initiative measure onto the November ballot — most likely it is a negotiating ploy.

There is a history of using exaggerated scare tactics by the union local when there have been past proposals to curtail costs — as happened in 2005 when former City Manager Frank Benest attempted to close Station 8 in Foothill Park to save about $180,000 a year.

Faced by two bad wildlands fires, the City Council later restored peak-season staffing of Station 8, all on overtime to save annual salary/benefits costs while other firefighters were moved to fill in for the foothills crew, a double budget whammy.

Spitaleri, a former Palo Alto firefighter, is a blunt-spoken advocate for his union local, often couching his positions behind the "public safety" position.

He feels the firefighters have "taken a beating" from the media on the overtime issue.

He also said the publicized backing off of the firefighters from an initial commitment to defer nearly $700,000 in salary increases was complicated in that it was linked to an adjustment in health benefits. And, he said, subsequent offers that would have saved even more money for the city were not acted upon or were rejected.

He told the Weekly the initiative effort could be stopped anytime.

That, we believe, is the best idea yet.

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