Palo Alto Weekly
News - April 29, 2011
Palo Alto eyes a calmer budget season
City hopes to close $3 million deficit without slashing community programs
by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto's ongoing quest to balance its books, contain rising pensions and obtain concessions from city workers will hit an annual milestone Monday night when City Manager James Keene unveils his plan for closing a $3 million hole in next year's budget.
But unlike a year ago, city officials don't expect a swell of community opposition.
The city's financial picture has improved since last June, when the City Council wrestled with a $7.3 million budget gap and cut 58 positions to close the deficit. The economy has been slowly but steadily improving, Palo Alto's unemployment rate is a relatively enviable 5.8 percent (compared to 10.8 in Santa Clara County) and according to a new long-range forecast, consumer spending is now rebounding.
But as the city's long-range financial forecast makes clear, Palo Alto is still facing years of snowballing deficits that are driven in large part by slow revenue growth and spiking pension and health care costs. These include annual gaps of $6.7 million, $6.9 million and $7.6 million projected for fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Barring structural changes to the city's staff, the cumulative budget deficits are expected to total close to $100 million between fiscal years 2012 and 2022, according to the latest estimate.
The new forecast, the city's Senior Financial Analyst Nancy Nagel wrote in a new report, "brings into sharp focus the necessity for change over the next 10 years to address significant structural deficits. ...
"The increasing cost of employee benefits, above and beyond the growth in revenue sources, means that employees will need to bear a larger proportion of the cost of those benefits," Nagel wrote. "Otherwise the City will either need to cut services or aggressively evaluate outsourcing options for some of those services."
The difficult conversation promises to be more subdued this year than it was last year. Lalo Perez, director of the Administrative Services Department, said the new budget proposal seeks to close the gap by reducing costs in City Hall departments without eliminating city services. Popular programs that were on the chopping block last year, including school crossing guards and the Police Department's traffic team, are not proposed for elimination this year, Perez told the Weekly.
"There are no significant impacts to the community like we had last year," Perez said.
He also said the city plans to balance the budget without dipping into its reserves or sacrificing any infrastructure funding.
"It's going to be mostly adjustments in department budgets," he said.
Among the biggest challenges the city is facing this fiscal year is obtaining concessions from its public-safety workers. The city's negotiations with its main firefighter union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, have dragged on for more than a year, and the city is preparing for binding-arbitration proceedings to settle the labor dispute.
The City Council will discuss the status of the city's negotiations with police and firefighters at a closed session on Monday night. The council's Finance Committee, which is scheduled to hold budget hearings throughout May and early June, plans to discuss the proposed budgets for the police and fire departments Thursday night.
Keene has consistently called for public-safety employees to accept the types of concessions that other city workers have agreed to over the past two years. These include a two-tiered pension formula (with less-generous pension benefits for new hires) and health care contributions.
The new forecast similarly calls for greater contributions from police and firefighters in the short-term and for all workers to bear a "larger proportion of the cost of benefits from fiscal year 2013 onwards."
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.
Posted by Time-To-Privatize,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2011 at 8:03 am
> but I think that you'll find in today's work environment that
> jobs like firefighters and police are hard job to obtain if
> you do not have a college education
It's hard to accept this statement without a complete review of the qualifications for firefights nationwide. The following link points to a generic page on "firefighting" educational requirements. It would seem that an AA "degree" is perhaps becoming a "requirement", but anyone with a pulse can sit through two years of Community College.
Fire Fighter Education Requirements:
A college degree is not required to become a fire fighter because they gain most of their trainingon the job. In addition to passing pre-employment written, physical and medical exams, fire fighters are usually required to earn certification as an EMT.
Let's not forget that 2/3rds of Americas "firefighters" are volunteers, and as such, do not fall under any formalized, or minimum, requirements for "education" guidelines. Some aspects of modern "firefighting", like HAZMAT response might seem to need higher "education", but since much of this activity is more-or-less procedural, it's not clear how a BS in Chemistry is going to make for a better "firefighter".
There is a case for requiring BS (and even MS) degrees for police officers, at least in urban areas. The following link points to a web-page that contains some data on this topic:
SUBJECT: Studies, Case Law, Quotes, Standards and Trends in Support of a College Education for Police Officers:
Given how convoluted the law has become, and how important "technology" has become, it seems imperative that when communities are paying people over $100K, that they actually get something back for these dollars.
Having police officers who understand statistics, web-site design, telecommunications, history, and possibly second language fluency does perhaps justify higher salaries than in the past. However, paying a police officer $150K-$200K (after ten years, say), because such officers have acquired a few skills, but not necessarily mastered them, is not justified.
If one were to look at the military Officer Corps, and compare it to a similar group of police officers (with degrees), there would be a stark contrast between these two groups. The military officers would, in the end, have achieved a lot more in a short period of time, being paid far less in salary, and very little in terms of future pension payouts compared to the police officers.
With actual "firefighting" dropping to less than 4% of callouts, both nationally and locally, the need for "firefighters" becomes less clear. If City governments were to become more proactive, and require intelligent fire detection/suppression systems (such as sprinkers) in new residential construction, the severity of fire damage would be greatly reduced. Creative use of public funds would allow retrofitting of all homes in a city with sprinkler systems on on-line fire detection, with the city paying a portion and the homeowner paying a portion.
Currently, NCA 1710 (a National Fire Standard) requires Cities to staff at a level that will ensure a 4 minute response time. If this "sprinkler initiative" were to be embraced, then cities could start to see few fires, and less damage when fires occur. This would then facilitate rethinking of NCA 1710, with the consequences that City governments would be able to spend less on "Firefighting" in the future. This would both free up money to further the costs of retrofitting sprinkler systems, as well as introducing other fire detection/suppression technologies--such as robots, and surveillance equipment.
When a City is paying firefighters $150K-$200K, men/women who claim to have college degrees, it would seem only reasonable to believe that such employees could do all the basic research, and write all of the papers necessary to proceed down a path to "change". Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case. At least not here in Palo Alto. All we seem to get is "activism", and "threats of strikes" and/or lawsuits.
It these people truly are "professionals", maybe it's time they demonstrate their "professionalism" and get on with "inventing the future" rather than just demanding more salary.
Posted by Jake,
a resident of another community
on May 3, 2011 at 11:16 pm
Just wanted to clear up a few things about what you wrote, for starters its NFPA 1710, not "NCA" 1710. NFPA is (National Fire Protection Association).
Firefighters in PA also can't strike, so "threats of strikes" as you wrote is not something that has occured or could. Police and Firefighters in Palo Alto can't and wouldnt go on strike.
As for college degrees, most firefighters have college degrees of some sort. Some 2 and some 4 year degrees. University and State colleges are represented as well as private such as Stanford grads.
All of firefighter training and skills are not "learned on the job" as you write. The minimum qualifications listed are set by the City, not the firefighters. The truth is most firefighters have higher education and licenses or certifications. To actualy get a fire service job, be good at it and to promote you need to constantly continue your education and learn new skills and ideas. It's like any other profession. Things keep changing and one needs to keep learning all they can. Most Firefighters getting hired now also hold a Paramedic license. That in itself takes about a year to obtain, and requires constant year CE's (continued education) to maintain and retain your license. So you add two years roughly for a AS degree in fire science, then EMT school, Paramedic school, fire academy, plus other course work such as haz-mat training and or certs, Rescue Systems, Confined Space, etc. Its much higher than what the City lists as a requirement. The truth is, the applicants who actualy get hired for any FD these days have way more than the min listed requirements. The job has changed through the years and so has the required knowledge needed to be a true professional. Most of the calls have a large EMS skill need, then you have haz-mat, rescue, auto
extrication, etc. Way more FD demand than for fires, chemicals, building construction, vehicles (airbags,electric, hydrogen, construction, etc) require ongoing training. The Cities are not providing much if any of advanced training in many areas so firefighters/paramedics often go to this training on their own time on their days off. No overtime paid either. They do it on their own.
You want to actualy be a good fire service professional and provide the best service you can? you gotta keep up on advances. Cities do not have the training budgets to send people to classes or obtain certifications. Most depts don't even have decent staffed training divisions as they did 25-30 years ago. The PAFD just got ripped in the recent study for having a sub par training division. The PAFD cut out and eliminated positions in that area years ago to save money.
Many fire service professionals have degrees in Public Administration, Engineering, Biology, etc. Cities realized long ago the better educated often bring more to the table and are better equiped to understand things like Haz-Mat response and mitigation if the have chemistry background.
I know Firefighters with over 200+ college units just in advanced fire service course work. The profession requires much more knowledge and education that the watered down 12-16 week fire academy may have provided. 16 week fire academy may have been OK in 1950 but it falls very short in providing a probationary firefighter recruit the needed skills required in todays world of emergency services.
I'm sorry if this offends some people but a college degree or even an advanced degree does not always make the person better or more dedicated in their chosen profession. Some people are much more successful and are more dedicated with less education than their peers. Lots of people just get advanced degrees because it's required or it's looked upon as a must to advance. Plenty of persons in Silicon Valley did very well and contributed greatly to the world without an advanced degree or degree period. I'm sure in many cases in Silicon Valley industry they were probably bored or under challenged by college so they simply dropped out or just never went beyond their state college degree.
I also don't agree with many people that simply because one went to college for four years, then that should justify a $100-150K salary.
Have they continued with their education? spent their off hours attending seminars, getting licenses, certifications, etc. Or have they based their whole justification on their college years when they were 18-22? I feel education is important for any profession but some people view education as a class structure,economic invite instead of what it should be, and education. A college degree now is almost considered on the same level of need as a high school diploma was 75 years ago.
You cant even apply for many careers these days without a college diploma. Does t he college diploma really mean you are not going to be able to actualy do the job? there are many marketing and sales jobs out there in the tech industry that really require good sales skills, marketing skills. Many USA buisness giants never went to college. Rare but it happens. Smart driven people will most often be that way in whatever they choose to do.
Fire Depts are not hiring "just firefighters" also, most FDs are trying to higher dedicated smart people who can contribute to the dept and be somebody who can bring something to the table and contribute to the dept and city. Could they, and do they have what it takes to be Chief of the Department some day? Is he or she going to be able someday to use the chemistry degree they obtained in college to possibly go into the prevention division in the future? supervise the haz-mat program? actualy understand the complicated codes? have a educated converstation with the person in charge of a Bio Science Co in Industrial Park about potential hazards of a chemical or process they use?
A better educated anyone is a good thing, I don't care what job or profession. Just like the buisness world, the fire service requires continued education and experience. Some of that can have an advanced degree attached to it and often times it can't. Does not mean the person did not aquire new and advanced skill or ideas. Does anyone really think the person who graduated from a four year college and went to work at say HP for instance, then who over time moved upward and contributed to the company for years. Learning new skills and attending seminars, etc but who never went on to get an MBA or advanced degree automaticly mean they have not been dedicated or learned new things that have not made them a better employee and bigger contributer to the company? many things learned in any profession simply can't have a degree hanging on a wall attached to it. The degree may have gotten them in the door day one but to keep advancing they had to learn new things and contribute to the company, otherwise they might still be the person working year after year doing a job.
I find it very curious how many people make comments on what firefighters and paramedics do or don't do when they are at work. They repeat stereotypes, base their comments on their kids fire station book maybe, I don't know. It's obvious to me many are clearly way off base. Simply because a firefighter is not actualy fighting fires the entire 56-72 hours a week they are working does not mean they are not doing other types of needed work and or required duties related to fighting fires, providing emergency medical care, fire inspections, equipment maint, etc. I don't base my opinions about what corporate lawyers do or don't do by some TV series I watch. Truth is I have no idea what they do for the most part. I'm fairly sure though they are not spending their majority of their working day in court or in a hearing arguing that their companies product or idea was stolen by another. I also don't think every county hospital trauma nurse spends his or her entire 12 hour shift in some car accident patients chest cavity. Both examples I'm sure are doing their jobs as required for success of their company and the patient.
I do know that almost every profession requires many many needed things to be done to allow them to do their job. The title of their position obviously does not mean they are spending the entire work day doing exactly what their listed job title is.
Fire Sprinklers are a great requirement, but Cities can't order that people install them in the thousands of older buildings that were built before they were required. They often times only control a fire, and not actualy extinguish a fire. Most fatal fires happen in residential fires, again. Cities cant make people install them in existing homes and few cities will mandate them in new homes, caving to political pressure from developers, real estate and building industry. Prevention is great and a key to actualy preventing fires before they occur but again, the PAFD Prevention Division saw many positions eliminated and or reduced through the years. This was also mentioned in the recent study as a problem. A healthy FD requires a system, prevention, education, training, operations, etc. It works together. The City of Palo Alto reduced the size of the FD for years, eliminated divisions and positions, etc. Then when their study comes back saying there are problems related to eliminated positions and programs that we cut they act all surprised? They don't hire enough people often times to keep up with units THE CITY ADDED and MANDATED and retirements, instead the CITY staffs multiple units with overtime instead of hiring people. Then the CITY is first to complain about the overtime budget and how much it costs. The news papers print salaries including overtime, even though it was the CITIES choice and call to not hire and instead mandate overtime! and who gets blamed? the firefighters. You never hear the CITY explaining it was the City Manager and or City Councils decision to staff units with overtime. Instead they make it seem the firefighters made choice. The Firefighters wouldnt be much of a headline for the bolgs if there was not overtime. The firefighters already work 56+ plus hour weeks BEFORE overtime. Any added overtime money is added work week hours. They also have families, kids, holidays, sporting events for their kids, school functions, etc they would like to take part in as well.
If Cities moved firefighters to 8-12 hour shifts the cities would actualy need to hire more employees to over the city 24/7 and allow for the employees to have days off. having firefighters work 24 shifts is a benefit for the city. If it wasnt does anyone really think cities wouldnt have changed it already?
Most firefighters hourly wage is not that high as many people may think, their yearly salary is good because they average ot to 56+ hour work weeks. Overtime earnings do not count towards retirement formulas and any overtime earnings at all mean the person worked over 60 hour weeks at least.
Instead the City and news papers would have you think all firefighters are working barely any days at all and making 150K a year. They only seem to mention money and benefits, never a word about the negatives related to the profession or the personal toll it takes on people after 30-40 years of 56 plus hour work weeks. How many people reading this are in their 40s and 50's still working weekends, holidays, 4th of July, Christmas? missing your childs school event, sporting event, family event, etc because your at work? Firefighters cant simply leave work for an hour or so for a family event. They often leave for work before anyone is awake at home and are gone until after 8:00 AM the next day, when kids are already off to school and spouse is off to work as well. 36-48 hours plus without actualy seeing your family is very common.
The fire service is a great profession, with great pay and benefits but there are also many not so great aspects to the job. The City and newspapers don't mention those facts.