These facts came out Tuesday night at a meeting of the City Council's Finance Committee, which was hearing an update on the highly anticipated "standards of coverage" study. The council had hoped to use the new study during its upcoming contract negotiations with the firefighters' union, but after hearing from the project consultant Tuesday, the committee's hopes largely dissolved into buyer's remorse.
Joe Parrot, the project consultant with the firm Emergency Services Consulting International, told the Finance Committee Tuesday that the new study would analyze the fire department's capability and the level of risk in the community and identify ways to achieve more efficient and effective service. Parrot, a deputy fire chief in Salem, Ore., said the study is scheduled to be completed and presented to the council in early June.
But the committee's eyes lit up after Councilman Larry Klein asked Parrot whether his company has ever recommended a staff reduction and Parrot said he couldn't recall a single case where that has happened. Parrot's statement startled the committee, which is grasping for ways to close an estimated $8.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011.
"The reality is that once we have a conversation with a community, in this case with the council, on what the department is trying to achieve in terms of incident mitigation and effective delivery of services, expectations about performance tend to go up rather than down," Parrot told the committee via telephone during Tuesday's meeting.
"In my experience with elected officials working all over the country, I have yet to have one suggest that they want a less effective fire department," he later added.
But while Parrot argued that his tendency to not recommend staff reductions is "client driven," committee members said they were shocked by his track record. Klein said it seemed "extraordinary that no study has ever come up with a reduction." Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said he was "amazed, flabbergasted, but maybe not surprised." He also said he was "shocked" to see the city go "down this path."
"We're obviously looking for an objective, independent review of our — specific here — coverage standards and staffing standards," Espinosa said.
The department's staffing levels have emerged as one of the city's hottest topics in the past month. The city's firefighters' union is trying to place a petition on the November ballot that would lock in the current staffing level in the department and require the city to hold an election any time it wants to reduce staff size or close a fire station.
The union is also preparing to begin negotiations with the city over a new contract. The current agreement is scheduled to expire on June 30.
On Monday night, the City Council voted 7-2 to support a colleagues' memo calling the union proposal "bad government" and urging citizens not to sign it. If the union gets the needed 5,446 signatures to put the measure on the ballot, the election would cost the city about $190,000.
Tony Spitaleri, a retired fire captain and president of Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, accused the City Council Monday night of hampering democracy by encouraging city residents not to sign the ballot petition.
But Klein demurred. "If this were on the ballot and somehow passed it would be the reverse of democracy," Klein said. "We'd have a situation where one group of employees would have far greater rights than another group of employees in the city.
"I don't think it's appropriate or democratic."
At the Finance Committee meeting Tuesday night, Klein wondered aloud whether Parrot's affiliation with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a network of high-level fire officials, constitutes a conflict of interest or, at the very least, creates an institutional bias.
Klein told Parrot: "You're either recommending efficiencies — moving people around a bit — or you recommend an increase."
Parrot said the fire chiefs' organization provides his firm with additional expertise and experience. He also maintained that while his group has not recommended staffing reductions, it has recommended closing down stations and using existing resources more effectively.
Fire Chief Nick Marinaro said Parrot's firm was chosen by a five-member staff committee that included three high-level members of the Fire Department and financial analysts from the Utilities Department and from the Administrative Services Department.
The city is spending $55,000 on the study.
According to Marinaro's report, the company has conducted more than 100 studies and has a long history of experience with fire departments in California and in the Bay Area.
Committee Chair Greg Schmid noted that the informational letter from Emergency Services Consulting International describing the scope of the project doesn't really address the subject of overtime — another touchy topic at the Fire Department.
Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil said staff will review the city's request for proposals for this study and consider whether the city "veered off in the wrong direction." Staff will return to the Finance Committee May 6 with its report, Antil said.
The full City Council is scheduled to discuss the standards-of-coverage study May 17.