Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 28, 2010

Tempers rise as Palo Alto, fire union begin talks

Firefighters' 'minimum staffing' provision likely to emerge as a hot topic in negotiations

by Gennady Sheyner

Depending on who the speaker is, the Palo Alto Fire Department is either a bare-bones outfit fighting to retain its staff after years of draconian cuts or a bloated, overstaffed silo whose rising costs are forcing other city departments to lay off workers and cut programs.

Both views have been voiced eloquently in recent months and are sure to re-emerge, perhaps more diplomatically, during Palo Alto's contract talks with its firefighters' union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319.

The negotiations formally kicked off Wednesday — at a time of heightened tensions between the council and firefighters, whose current contract expires June 30. On May 18, members of the council's Finance Committee repeatedly accused the Fire Department of not "stepping up to the plate" by helping trim the department's proposed budget for 2011. The budget would raise net expenditures by $1.8 million as other departments brace for sharp cuts and layoffs.

The union countered that all non-essential positions in the department have already been axed.

Tensions are exacerbated by the union local spearheading a ballot measure that would change the City Charter to require Palo Alto to hold an election before making any Fire Department layoffs or closing of fire stations.

Tony Spitaleri, president of the 108-member union, said the firefighters' initiative petition already has close to 7,000 signatures, more than enough to qualify for the November ballot.

The department has an annual budget of about $25 million budget, though it also brings the city about $11 million in revenues every year, chiefly from contracting fire-protection and paramedic services to Stanford University and providing medical transport as part of the department paramedics program.

Both sides told the Weekly this week that while they remain somewhat optimistic they don't expect any quick resolutions to the ongoing areas of dispute. Perhaps the most contentious issue is the "minimum staffing" provision in the union's contract — an agreement that was adopted in the late 1970s, shortly after the Palo Alto's department merged with Stanford University's.

The provision requires the city to staff at least 29 firefighters per shift, making it virtually impossible for the city to reduce non-administrative staff in the department. City Manager James Keene's proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 recommends eliminating 75 full-time-equivalent positions in the city but only one in the Fire Department — a hazardous-materials specialist.

Spitaleri told the Weekly that the union had already made two informal offers to the city, which he said would have saved the city $1.1 million. Spitaleri said the city "turned a deaf ear" to the offer. He said he is convinced the city will try to remove the minimum-staffing provision during negotiations — a move the union strongly resists.

"If minimum staffing goes away, we feel very confident that what they will do is close stations, which will have an impact on the community when it comes to response time," Spitaleri said.

Keene said the minimum-staffing provision is "worth talking about," particularly in light of the recent compensation reductions other labor groups agreed (or were forced) to take over the past year. Keene said neither his staff nor the City Council have proposed laying off any firefighters or closing any stations. But the city should have flexibility in discussing Fire Department staffing levels, he said.

"The minimum-staffing requirement in the contract really precludes reduction in the department," Keene told the Weekly. "You can't even have a discussion about different ways of staffing in the department."

The city recently commissioned a study to analyze department staffing levels and make recommendations. The $60,000 study is scheduled to be completed in mid-summer.

Regardless of what the study recommends, both Keene and the council have indicated they would be seeking concessions from the union, much as they have from other labor groups. Last year, both the Service Employees International Union and the city's Professional and Management group saw their benefits rolled back through a two-tiered system, where future hires get lower benefits, in addition to reductions in health coverage.

"We've made no secret that we think that as we get into our negotiations with the public-safety unions we'll be seeking similar significant ongoing savings for the city," Keene said.

"The city needs to have every employee group making actual ongoing cost savings."

The Finance Committee took a similar stance on May 18 when it rejected Fire Chief Nick Marinaro's proposed budget for 2011. The budget includes an increase of more than $1 million to salaries and benefits.

Marinaro told the committee that because of the minimum-staffing provision the department wouldn't save any money by cutting the number of firefighters. Instead, some more experienced (and higher paid) firefighters would have to fill the vacated positions, sending overtime costs spiking.

"It's essentially a wash," Marinaro said. "One of the reasons we stayed at full staffing is that it actually saves a little bit of money — we pay entry-level firefighters a lower rate than if we paid captains overtime to work."

In lieu of staff reductions, Marinaro has identified other potential cost-saving measures, some of which he called "draconian."

One proposal would eliminate the fire chief position after Marinaro retires in June and create a "public safety director" position that oversees both the police and fire departments. Other ideas include removing the Office of Emergency Services from the Fire Department; reorganizing the Fire Prevention Bureau, which handles environmental and safety management, including permits for fire-alarm systems; and scrapping the department's paramedics service.

Marinaro also told the Weekly that closing Station 8 at Foothill Park remains an option, albeit a politically difficult one that neither he nor Keene recommends. According to the city's 2009 Service Efforts and Accomplishments Report, the station received just four service calls in fiscal year 2009 (compared to 2,605 calls at Station 1 on Alma Street and the roughly 1,000 calls at each of the department's other Palo Alto stations). But any move to close the station would likely face resistance from residents in the sparsely populated, open-space district — particularly those who remember the 1985 fire near the foothills that destroyed 150 acres and destroyed four houses in Palo Alto and 11 in Los Altos Hills.

Even if the council were to accept one or more of these proposals, the city is expected to take a tough stance on firefighter compensations during the negotiations. The Finance Committee directed Marinaro on May 18 to assume a 4 percent reduction in salaries and benefits.

Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa, the only committee member to dissent, argued the council shouldn't "build budgets based on contracts that don't exist."

Despite the recent tension, Keene told the Weekly he is confident both sides will be able to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, however long that takes.

"I know the city is completely committed to achieving a contract with the firefighters' union that would work in the interests of both the firefighters and the city," Keene said. "I'm optimistic now, but the negotiations may take some time."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Keith, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on May 28, 2010 at 10:22 am

Perhaps people who choose to live in sparsely populated areas need to pay a bigger share or all of the cost of keeping the Foothill station open. Four service calls in a year?


Posted by petercarp, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 10:32 am

petercarp is a registered user.

A big opportunity for savings would be a consolidation of the Palo Alto and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. These two agencies share a large common boundary and serve similar populations.

The consolidated agency would need half the current supervisory staff and could combine many other support functions. Two big obstacles - lack of thinking outside the box by local officials and crossing the county line - although the Palo Alto Fire Department already provides coverage for the portions of Stanford that are in San Mateo County.

Anybody up to some innovative and courageous tax saving thinking?


Posted by Karen White, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 28, 2010 at 11:18 am

Petercarp is onto something. Consolidation with other cities, either in San Mateo or Santa Clara County, should definitely be explored as a way to reduce the need for supervisory staff and to create operational efficiencies. Sunnyvale has a Public Safety department, combining both Police and Fire. Perhaps this should also be explored for Palo Alto.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm

PAFD does some resource sharing with Mountain View --- the large ladder trucks for example.

MPFD covers MP, Atherton and some other San Mateo Co. areas as well.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm

To get some idea of the potential savings involved in fire consolidations look at the recently released San Mateo County Grand Jury report:

Web Link


Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 28, 2010 at 12:37 pm

So Spilitari and his fire fighters already have 7,000 signatures? How? By targeting and scaring senior citizens anyplace they can find them, targeting newly registered dewy-eyed impressionable eighteen year olds, Can they sign up Stanford students since the Stanford fire district is part of Palo alto? I'd like to know. The Firefighters are using every political trick in the book and some new ones. I used to respect our PAFD but no more, and they as a group should toss out their leadership. The union piped pipers are leading their membership over the civic cliff.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Kate states:"I used to respect our PAFD but no more, and they as a group should toss out their leadership. The union piped pipers are leading their membership over the civic cliff. "

The actual firefighters in both Palo Alto and Menlo Park Fire Protection District are some of the best in the nation - their union leadership in both cases is sadly lacking in vision and in their commitment to the communities which they serve. A good strong push for consolidation would be a healthy dose of reality for all concerned.


Posted by tough times, a resident of Midtown
on May 28, 2010 at 1:50 pm

In my opinion, during this era of tough times the PAFD has not done its share of cost cutting. Last year they originally offered to give up the raises already in their contract, but then reneged and decided they needed the increase afterall. The foothill station with its 4 calls a year is often staffed with a set of fire captains all on overtime. Because we all respect the fire department and its firemen, we did not hold the line on their benefits when times were good. It is unfortunate, that now that times are bad, most of us are happy to have a job at the same salary as 2008. But, unfortunately the PAFD seems to think they can squeeze even more from the city, if they can hoodwink the voters.


Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Peter, I'm curious what it is about the local FF's that make them the best in the nation? How would some one go about quantifying that?
Do they have special training, or education, or are they superior in some other way. I have a difficult time understanding why they are paid 2-3 times the national avarage.

I'm not sure I blame the union for acting the way they have. They were able to take a job that doesn't take a lot of special talent and turn it in to an incredibly lucrative and cushy career. I blame the city council and the voters who have allowed this to happen. In many ways the damage has been done. A lot of valuable services and careers were short changed while cities wasted millions on FF's. And our children will be stuck with those pension costs for decades. But at least we can start to put a dent in to the problem. My concern is that in a few years it will all happen again. I'm sure Spitaleri and the other union bosses are hoping that is the case.

Seems to me that solution would be to have regional non-profits that bid on fire services. A little market competition would make a big difference.



Posted by scare tactics, a resident of Gunn High School
on May 28, 2010 at 4:52 pm

No doubts that the firefighter's union used scare tactics to collect their 7,000 signatures. Two firefighters came to my home and said flat out "you will die if you have a heart attack" if the city closes fire stations. I asked what they have done to help the city with the budget deficit and they were silent. I would be more willing to support their cause if I felt they shared the pain of the budget deficit with the rest of us but they are out for only themselves -- let the rest of us pay. They left my place shaking their heads at me and now I wonder if my home has been blacklisted by the fire department.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Resident asks "I'm curious what it is about the local FF's that make them the best in the nation?"

Both Palo Alto Fire and Menlo Fire have great reputations, pay exceedingly well, have superb leadership and therefore attract superb recruits. We have provided them with superb training. In addition Menlo Fire is the sponsor for one of the 28 national Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, California Task Force 3, and Palo Alto Fire contributes its best people to that Task Force. As a former elected Director of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District I had the privilege of working closely with the Menlo Fire personnel and with the leadership of Palo Alto Fire and with the Palo Alto Fire personnel who participate in CA TF-3 and I can assure you that we have some of the very best firefighters in the nation. I cannot say the same for their union leadership.


Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Peter, I appreciate your response and don't mean to be criticizing what you said. But I didn't see anything in your message that I could use to objectively say that local firefighters are superior to others around the nation. The fact that they get superior training is a credit to the city and probably is expensive for the city. So I would understand why that would allow our FF's to develop in to good FF's. But who is funding that training? The fact that MP has a nationally recognized search team is a positive, but does that do the residents a lot of good. Is it worth the cost?

My brother is a fire captain north of SF. He has a college degree and was a two sport athlete in college. He loves his job. He doesn't make near what the local FF's make (his wife works, and he is a contractor on the side). He is able to do all this due to all the time off he has and the fact that he can sleep during a good part of his shift. We have talked about FF careers (his son is in a fire science program and worked for Cal Fire last summer). He has never mentioned that Bay area FF's have an above average reputation. And a friend of mine's son is working for San Diego County as an FF. He was on an athletic/academic scholarship at a major CA university. He is making $40K a year.

I think the reality is that the local FF's are probably mostly good guys/gals but nothing out of the ordinary. They would be making $60-$70K a year (some less and some more) in most other careers they would have been qualified for(EMT, carpenter, etc). They should be making around $60K locally except that the unions have been able to scare/bully/manipulate the local city governments in to paying them 2-3 times the market rate.

I expect you disagree and that is fine. Just my view of the situation.


Posted by Dan, a resident of another community
on May 28, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Resident is right - PA firefighters perform the same services as firefighters anywhere else in the country. If your house is on fire, they put the fire out. If you have a medical emergency, they provide EMS care.

Not to knock the skills or dedication of FFs, but firefighting and EMS are the same no matter where you go. There is no valid justification for the ridiculous salaries and benefits being paid to PA and other Bay Area firefighters.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 7:24 pm

I think that Dan and Resident are conflating two different issues - firefighters' pay and benefits and the cost savings of consolidation.

I agree that all of the peninsula firefighters are paid well over the national and even the state average but that fact has nothing to do with the benefits which would accrue from consolidating two or more fire agencies. It is may be difficult to consolidate bit it would be even more difficult to substantially roll back the current firefighters' pay and benefits. I suggest that we focus on the difficult but very cost saving option of consolidation.


Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Peter, I'm not sure what conflating means, but the issue I am focusing on is that bay area cities are having increasing difficulty balancing their budgets. A significant part of the cost increase is FF costs. If FF's costs are out of line with the national average by a factor of 2-3, than I suggest city governments focus on that part of the budget. Even if cities were flush with cash there is no reason to overpay for a service. There are several ways of addressing the issue. You like consolidation. I think that may be a step in the right direction. But in the short run I would focus on the lower hanging fruit. That is overpaid (according to national norms) employees. Longer term I would like to see more strategic approaches. This would include consolidation and competition.

I think the "difficulty" of rolling back the salaries (that you refer to) is the threat of a strike. I don't think it has anything to do with finding qualified candidates. As disruptive as a strike would be, I prefer weathering that alternative to permanently paying 2-3 times the value of a service.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Resident states:"I think the "difficulty" of rolling back the salaries (that you refer to) is the threat of a strike."

Until a city goes bankrupt is is obligated by law to honor its existing labor agreements and those agreements can only be changed by mutual negotiation. You may not like that fact bit it is the law.
Therefore there is very little that can be done about current firefighters' wages and benefits - even if they are considered by many to be excessive.

The only reasonably effective strategies for cutting the cost of fire services in the short term is either consolidation or outsourcing - both of which require strong political leadership and strong citizen support. I wonder if Palo Alto has either.


Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Peter states "Until a city goes bankrupt is is obligated by law to honor its existing labor agreements and those agreements can only be changed by mutual negotiation".

All entities are obligated to honor existing agreements and negotiations are by definition mutual. So I think we are on the same page. The difference is that I am suggesting that the city negotiate an updated agreement as part of the upcoming contract talks that adjusts PA FF's salaries to be in line with the national average. Peter has said that will be difficult and I don't disagree. But I am all for working on resolving difficult problems if they result in fair solutions that benefit the citizens.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Given the Palo Alto firefighters' union attempt to get the citizens to protect their jobs I seriously doubt that the same union will negotiate ANY givebacks.

My advice is to focus on the very real savings that could be achieved by consolidation.


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Did you not read the article? It clearly states the firefighters recently offered up givebacks in wages and benefits totalling $1.1 million, but the city refused to accept the offer...


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Anonymous notes that :"the firefighters recently offered up givebacks in wages and benefits totalling $1.1 million"

Being offered something by the union means nothing until you know what they wanted in return. I suspect that the city recognized that the price to the city of the union's offer far exceeded $1.1 million.


Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2010 at 9:08 pm

The article said "Spitaleri told the Weekly that the union had already made two informal offers to the city, which he said would have saved the city $1.1 million." Based on Spitaleri's past behavior and comments, I wouldn't trust any thing that comes out of his mouth. He likely tried to work a deal where the city would hire more FF's and spend less on overtime. Then next year he'll demand more raises and more featherbedding, resulting in an increased FF budget, offset by more layoffs in other city depts and reduced services for PA taxpayers. Plus more FF's means more union dues for Spitaleri's pockets.

I strongly support the city taking a firm stance on FF costs. The citizens have been gouged long enough. Now is the time to correct the problem.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Remember that under California law the firefighters cannot strike. If they won't negotiate with the city in response to the current economic situation and in light of their generous pay and benefits then the city should simply stand still and continue the current terms indefinitely.

MPFPD has refused its firefighter's demands for an 11% increase and as a result the firefighters are still being paid under the terms of the last agreement which expired in 2008.

However, this alone will not save very much money. If you want real savings then you will have to make some fundamental changes - like consolidation.


Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2010 at 8:01 pm

As a generality, I don't like the consolidation/outsourcing principle, because it means giving up local control. Unfortunately, we seem to have boxed ourselves in a corner. Unless the Firefighters' Union comes forward with a real cost-saving proposal, consolidation may be the best path. If we don't do something, eventually we will look like Vallejo.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 29, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Anon states:"As a generality, I don't like the consolidation/outsourcing principle, because it means giving up local control."

local control is important when you want to establish a particular standard of service for things like schools. In the case of fire prevention, fire suppression and emergency medical response the standards of service are well established and well accepted on a national basis hence local standard setting is not necessary. Two or three or 14 fire chiefs do not improve the quality of service but they certainly increase its cost. With a consolidated fire agency the citizens will continue to receive the same standard of service or even better service at a lower cost.


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Resident-
Spitaleri is putting union dues in his pockets? That is one hell of an accusation.
For the record, the firefighters asked nothing in return for the $1.1 million wage and benefit concession.


Posted by steve, a resident of Downtown North
on May 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm

City's probably got a huge RDA that's paid back with interest (hows the state take?). RDA is borrow now pay later scam with interest. RDA works on a priciple that it creates a larger tax base by impoving eye sore. In some cases this works. How's it working for us now? It has become monopoly money for cities, i.e council.(Remember the old days when capital and general funds were it.) All cities are paying their RDA payments from taxes that used to go in to the general fund, public safety and public works gets placed on the back burner. The RDA burden can be reduced. Example: a 50,000,000.00 RDA bond could be reduced to a 20,000,000.00 Or not merging an expiring RDA into other RDA's.
Look in to RDA's you will see they have ran there course in most cities but staff will continue to start new ones. Ya the economy sucks but most cities would cruise right through if it wasn't for RDA's. I want more cops, firefighters, and public works on the streets. That's the priorty, everyting else is fluff.


Posted by Lee Thι, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 29, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Does anyone have statistics on the incidence of fires in Palo Alto? I've been looking on the Net but haven't found anything. Just from reading local newspapers pretty much daily for the past 26 years, I get the impression that it's gone down. Has it?


Posted by Oh Come On, a resident of Downtown North
on May 30, 2010 at 2:05 am

This isn't about the quality of our firefighters or much of this other discussion.

This is about the fact that all other city employees have given up raises or taken huge cuts while the firefighters received rasies.

The budget cutting ideas they came up with are one time savings and not the long-term changes the city needs to avoid years of this problem year after year.

The city doesn't need to close any fire stations to save on staffing. All they need to do is share resources with the surrounding cities. Every city doesn't have to staff large ladder trucks and the rescue unit 24 hours a day every day. The number of calls each year where this equipment is actually used (not sent to a call, but used)are minimal and could be shared bteween cities. Yes it might take a couple minutes more to get the ladder to all those high rise fires we have, but we just cant afford the luxury any more. They could save millions of dollars doing this and all the stations would stay open. Why can't they do this? Because the firefighters think they need 30 people on duty all the time. These ideas are floating around city hall and no one will talk about them.

Way to step up like other departments and other employees. If the citizens are smart they will vote against your ballot measure.


Posted by just curious, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 30, 2010 at 8:47 am

To all you that feel OUR Firefighters are over paid...How much should they be paid? What should the average Firefighter make a year??? Just curious????


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 30, 2010 at 11:55 am

Just Curious asks:"To all you that feel OUR Firefighters are over paid...How much should they be paid? What should the average Firefighter make a year???"

Well for a start, how about the median income of the people whom they serve?
According to a 2007 US Census Dept. estimate, Palo Alto males had a median income of $91,051 versus $60,202 for females.


Posted by Deep Throat, a resident of another community
on May 30, 2010 at 1:33 pm

On Come On says, "it might take a couple minutes more to get the ladder to all those high rise fires we have, but we just cant afford the luxury any more."

Four ladder trucks were used at the Swain's Music store fire (where the Apple store is now) to contain the fire on site and prevent it from spreading to the adjacent properties. How long would it take to get that kind of response and how far would a fire spread if we adopted the idea of just waiting for the necessary equipment from four other cities that were each sharing one ladder truck with multiple cities?


Posted by Joe EspinosaMVFA, a resident of Barron Park
on May 30, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I use to be a firefighter in the area ...and I know what a great job and an asset you all are but !!!??? seriously...$250K a year for 10 days a month!!!!??


Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North
on May 30, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Just Curious asks:"To all you that feel OUR Firefighters are over paid...How much should they be paid? What should the average Firefighter make a year???"

Peter throws out the median Palo Alto income. Why would you use the median PA income? Should every one be making the same. So if some one asks what the union workers at Safeway make, would we use the median PA income as the benchmark. I wouldn't. Instead why not use something like the national average for FF's ($45K)? Or the average of the equivalent jobs like local EMT's (around $50K i think). It just seems so obvious that the PA FF's are overpaid by a factor of 2-3 times. When the contract negotiations start the city should offer something like $70K. A few will retire and eventually some will try to transfers. Hire new ones at the prevailing rate.


Posted by I Support Firefighters, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Knowing that Palo Alto's generous neighbor, Stanford University pays for a third of the FD Budget. That Revenue goes directly into the citys General Fund for the disfunctional City Council to spend on Public Art, Zoo's, Childrens Theater, and the most sacred cow of all PAUSD etc. etc... If the FD was able to claim the revenue that they produce (Stanford Contract, Paramedic Transport fees, HAZ MAT fees). It would be very clear that the citizens of Palo Alto have a Cadillac FD for the price of a Yugo. I heard the number of approx. 45% of actual FD budget is returned to the city. Is there another FD in California that returns that kind of cash. I don't think so. We are very lucky.


Posted by nowhere near., a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 30, 2010 at 10:19 pm

ISF,
No, the number is closer to 10%.


Posted by I, Too, Support Firefighters, a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2010 at 5:18 am

ISF,

Lucky? Your remarks make no sense. The "returns" are completely irrelevant because the FD is not a business.

If it wants to be considered a business, then it should incorporate and dissolve the gold-plated labor contracts. If not, then chip in like the rest of the city and cut long-term labor costs.

It's hard to call it lucky when the city is being driven over a cliff by labor costs. (And now property taxes are collapsing further.)


Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2010 at 9:37 am

ISF, I'm glad you brought up the Stanford question. I've been wondering if Stanford is "paying as you go" a fairly high rate, but, Palo Alto is spending money that it should be saving to cover the benefits of the extra firefighters. This is a complicated actuarial question- I have to wonder if the city is properly accounting for the later cost of the retirement benefits.

Regardless of the answer, though, it looks like a lot of firefighters get promotions towards the end of their careers, no doubt increasing their pension "high-three" numbers dramatically. And then there is the question of overtime. When you see the numbers for median mid-career firefighters, and, the subsequent pensions, something is not adding up correctly. I wish someone would do an in-depth analysis of the career path of the average firefighter and how the pensions and benefits stack up at the end.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

Since today is Memorial Day perhaps we can put the firefighters' pay in perspective:

A Captain in the Army with 20 years of service earns $72k.

A Sargent in the Marine Corps with 20 years of service earns $36k.

Both can retire with 20 years of service and receive 50% of their base pay.

And these folks just don't risk their lives, a lot of them have actually lost their lives in the service of our country.


Posted by Watchdog, a resident of Professorville
on May 31, 2010 at 9:54 am

Outsource fire services, Human Resources, and City management. That way they can take their fight offline and have it be a squabble among overseas temp staffing agencies.

Downsize City Council from 9 to 5 and have those 5 re-elected annual with a two term limit. Do not pay any compensation whatsoever to the City Council members.

Form a watch dog Committee of Concerned Citizens to go over the entire budget annually with a fine tooth comb and broadcast their findings on all avaialble electronic and print media.

Demote the Ctiy Manager to Management Advisor and Fire Chief to Contract Administrator for Temp Firefighters and Firefighting Advisory to the City Council and Committee of Concerned Citizens Watchdog Committee.


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2010 at 11:01 am

If you do some research you will find that 15 years ago a large regional fire department consolidation was being considered. The PA firefighter union was one of the biggest supporters of the consolidation. It didn't happen because of the lack of will by the politicians, not the workers.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 31, 2010 at 11:45 am

Firefighters in both Palo Alto and San Mateo County are very supportive of consolidation because they know that consolidated agencies provided better service at lower costs - primarily because of the significant reduction in the total overhead staff.

Consolidation will only happen if citizens demand that their politicians do some innovative and courageous tax saving thinking.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 31, 2010 at 11:59 am

Here are a few more such comparisons:

1 - The pilot of Air Force One is a USAF Colonel usually with 20-25 years of service.

His base pay is $11,007.30/month or $132,087 /year

He also receives about $500/month or $6000/year of flight pay

He supervises a crew of approximately 26 (not including the Secret Service agents accompanying the President).

He can retire with 2.5% of the average of his last three years base pay for each year of service but capped at 75%.

2 - a US Forest Service Smokejumper ( a firefighter who parachutes from airplanes to put out forest fires) are in GS-5 to GS-9 pay grades and start as $27,026/year and top out at $53,234/year at the top step level for non- supervisory ( includes crew chiefs but not management level) smokejumpers

MEDICAL AND PHYSICAL REQUIREMENTS: Smokejumper duties present unusual hazards and require that personnel be in excellent physical condition and possess a high degree of emotional stability and mental alertness. The health of individuals must be such that they have the capacity to meet demands for performance in the position and for human reliability. Before entrance on duty, and periodically during employment, smokejumpers must undergo a medical exam, physical conditioning, and an adeptness test. Failure to meet any of the required standards will be considered disqualifying for employment or a basis of termination. The adeptness test will be given in one time period and consists of performing 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, 7 chin-ups, and a 1.5-mile run which must be completed in 11 minutes or less. In addition to the work capacity test at the arduous level (as referenced under Other Significant Facts), a smokejumper pack-out test is required and consists of completing a 3-mile hike over level ground carrying a 110 pound pack in 90 minutes or less. The health of individuals must be such that they have the capacity to meet the demands for human reliability and performance in the position.

3 -Maj. Jennifer Grieves is the first female helicopter aircraft commander in the history of Marine One, the HMX-1 helicopter the president of the United States flies on. She makes about $84,000 and she can retire with 2.5% of the average of her last three years base pay for each year of service but capped at 75%.

4 - NASA's civilian astronauts are in the GS-11 through GS-14 pay grades, based on academic achievements and experience. Currently, a GS-11 astronaut starts at $59,493 per year; a GS-14 astronaut can earn up to $130,257 per year. To date 13 out of 321 who have flown in space have died in the line of duty or a fatality rate of about 4%.

In comparison, Palo Alto firefighters get paid on average almost $130,000.


Posted by Wife of civil servant, a resident of Greater Miranda
on May 31, 2010 at 3:56 pm

What you forget to mention, Peter, is that most Federal employees (I don't know about armed forces) do not get the solid gold retirement plans that PA firefighters get either.

Those hired after about 1987 get very little pension and have to build up a 401K account for their retirement, like most of the private sector, non unionized employees.


Posted by George Browning, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 2, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Lee The. The City Auditor publishes an annual Service Efforts & Accomplishments which gives a lot of detail on the major divisions of the City. It's free at the Auditor's office in City Hall. Look for Fire Dept. data for some answers to your question on fire incidents in the last five years.

I like what Peter Carpenter suggests. But it should be emphasized that the City has a contract with the Firefighters. Nothing can be changed until that contract is renegotiated.

Firefighters are unelected, mostly non-resident, employees who are trying to lock the current Fire Dept. contract provisions into the City Charter. A 2/3 vote would be required to change these provisions. Only a school or library bond issue gets a 2/3 vote.

Goodbye negotiations. Shameful.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jun 2, 2010 at 7:57 pm

George Browning states:"I like what Peter Carpenter suggests. But it should be emphasized that the City has a contract with the Firefighters. Nothing can be changed until that contract is renegotiated. "

I disagree. I believe that the City could begin exploration of consolidation now and simply make the expiration of the current labor agreement the start date for a new consolidated agency. The current financial distress gives the City legal and political leeway that it might not have in other circumstances. I also believe that the union has in the past and would now support such consolidation and might well be willing to accelerate this process.


Posted by unknown, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jun 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Contract with Santa Clara County Fire Department, they are all ready up there providing service to contracted city of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. They are trying to annex all the unincorperated land to the County boarded right now to. They also have Auto-Aid and Mutal Aid agreements with Palo Alto Fire Department also. They all ready do Joint Fire Academies together. So there training is consistent. Why not merge?


Posted by Steven, a resident of another community
on Jun 19, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Please read if you still believe your safety will not be affected by cuts to the fire department. The cuts would also include replacement of aging equipment. Learn from the tragedies in other communities. It matters.

Web Link

Web Link


Posted by Steve, a resident of another community
on Jun 19, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Oh, and another thing...

Web Link


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jun 19, 2010 at 3:16 pm

There is not need to reduce the Fire Dept's service levels - just merge PA Fire and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and you will reduce the costs and increase the service levels.

These two agencies have a very long common geographical boundary and very complimentary needs. The merged agency would have one chief, one training site, one Fire marshall, three battalion chiefs (instead of six) etc..


Posted by From Miss Vinay Alexander,, a resident of Duveneck School
on Aug 27, 2010 at 8:01 am

From Miss Vinay Alexander,

Compliment of the day

My name is Miss Vinay Alexander ,a young girl from Abidjan in Ivory Coast.Are you a God fearing fellow? I know that you may be surprise while I am asking you this question, because I have been in hell since the death of my parents and what my eyes have seen through my wicked uncle made me to fear any one I come across and i even questioning my aeon earth, please consider my situation.
I am the only surviving child to late Mr/Mrs Alexander Douna. My parents were famous farmers specialised in cocoa and gold business when they were alive. After the death of my mother, my father took over the family business alone until he was poisoned by his business associate after he was given the chairman of the association in Abidjan known as the economic capital which he suffered the sickness and died recently. I am presently living alone in my country as an orphan.
Before his death in a private hospital when i came back from Ghana where am schooling, he called me and told me about the sum of six million five hundred thousand US dollars ($6.5 million) he left in a fixed account in a bank here in my country, It was the money he intended to transfer overseas for foreign investment before he was poisoned. He told me that he deposited the money to be transferred abroad for investment purpose. After the burial i went to the bank for the release of the money ,the bank director told me that my father use my name as next of kin but that am not up to the age as the agreement bond that i should appoint a guardian on my behalf so that they can release the money on his behalf.
Now i am facing a hell of pressures in my country now and the people who poisoned my father is after my life. I have been severely attacked by unknown gun men in the formal hotel where i been hiding, right now two young girl had been killed by this assassins in that hotel as a mistaken of identity.
My uncle who was quarrelling with my late father was the one behind this problem, meanwhile he has taken over my father business as well and was seeking to kill me, my life was in danger and in a hideout where no one knows. Nobody is away of the money as am talking to you now as advice by my late father may their souls rest in perfect peace AMEN. i want the money to be transfer to your choice account and you will invest it wisely as my late father advised.
To make arrangement for me to come over to your country to further my education and to secure a resident permit for me in your country.
To will invest the money in any business you know well in your country, I am willing to offer you 20% of the total money as a reward for your assistance in the transfer and we shall discuses your percents in any profits of the investments.
Thanks and God bless
Yours, Vinay.


vinay_alexander@cantv.net


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