City Manager James Keene and Tony Spitaleri, president of Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, both said minimum staffing — a guarantee that at least 29 fire employees will be on duty at all times — remains the great divider in the contract negotiations, which have dragged on since May 2010.
In recent weeks, the union upped its offer to the city, agreeing to a wage decrease, revisions to the pension formula and a proposal to share health care costs with the city — measures similar to those undertaken by other employee groups over the past two years. Spitaleri also said the union proposed bringing down the minimal staffing level from 29 to 25, even though he characterized the proposed staffing level as "the bare minimum."
The city declined the offer.
Instead, management is focusing on scrapping the minimum-staffing requirement altogether. Keene called the provision, which requires the same staffing levels around the clock regardless of how many calls are received, "an archaic approach to providing services."
"I think minimum staffing is absolute key (in negotiations) and has been from day one from the city's perspective," Keene told the Weekly. "It's really difficult otherwise to get a handle on controlling overtime costs and to look at how staff can be deployed most effectively."
Spitaleri countered that minimum staffing is critical to maintaining the department's ability to provide adequate service. It is there to ensure the safety of both the community and the firefighters, Spitaleri said. He added that the department's staffing level of three firefighters per engine is already low, by county standards.
"Every time there's a call, we're relying on other cities for additional resources because we don't have the staffing on our engines that we need, whether on medical calls, fires or in a major catastrophe," Spitaleri said.
The minimum-staffing clause has become a target for the City Council over the past two years, as city revenues have declined while Fire Department costs continued to escalate. In February, the council heard a report from two consultants, ICMA (International City/County Management Association) and TriData, who reviewed the department and recommended a long list of reforms, including abolishing the minimum-staffing provision. The consultants wrote in their report that the city "should never agree to a minimum staffing requirement that establishes the total force as this equates to establishing the level of service provided."
A recent report from the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury, which reviewed all 15 fire departments in the county, made a similar finding. The report criticizes fire unions for relying on outdated service models and for resisting change even as this model is no longer sustainable, particularly now that the majority of calls are medical emergencies.
"Logic would dictate that SCC fire departments' continued insistence on clinging to a 100-year-old response model designed to fight structure fires makes no sense given the modern reality that structure fires are the exception and medical emergencies are the norm," the report stated.
The Grand Jury report takes particular aim at departments with minimum-staffing provisions. The requirement, the report argues, takes away the fire departments' ability to adjust service levels based on service demand.
"Those cities with fire contracts mandating minimum-staffing levels and crew size are at a disadvantage compared to those with the discretion to staff as needed," the report stated. "In minimum-staffing jurisdictions, fire chiefs have no flexibility to adapt crew composition, equipment assignments, or the form of response in the most efficient and effective manner."
The report also takes a swipe at firefighter unions, claiming that union leaders are doing a good job supporting union members but not enough when it comes to making the necessary changes. In Palo Alto, the union tried to permanently freeze staffing levels last year, when it put a measure on the November ballot that would have required the city to hold an election any time it wanted to reduce staff or close fire stations. City voters overwhelmingly shot down the proposal, with 75 percent voting "no."
The Grand Jury report claims the firefighters' resistance to change has diminished their reputation in the public eye.
"But unions must see that firefighter reputation is tarnished by a public perception of union greed, particularly in an economic environment where such greed — manifested by negotiations intractability — is forcing other necessary and popular city services, such as parks, libraries and recreation, to be cut," the report states. "The result is a clear impression of firefighters as self-serving rather than community serving."
Spitaleri, a retired Palo Alto fire captain, called the Grand Jury report "biased" and inaccurate in its characterization of firefighters. The union, he said, has more than stepped up to meet the city's financial challenges, offering concessions that he said would have saved the city about $3.1 million.
If the two sides don't reach an agreement on minimum staffing, the issue could end up getting settled by an arbitration panel, which is scheduled to resolve the contract dispute in the fall.
The discussion over minimum staffing is one of two long-standing issues of disagreement between city management and firefighters. Even as negotiations are preparing to go to binding arbitration, the council is considering scrapping or repealing the arbitration requirement, which is currently encoded in the City Charter. Any change to this provision would have to be approved by the voters.
The council's Policy and Services Committee discussed the issue Tuesday night and considered a long list of changes that could be implemented, including limiting the arbitrators' input to wages and benefits and requiring them to consider the city's overall financial picture and the impacts of their rulings on other city services.
The council will consider in late July whether to place these changes, or a repeal of binding arbitration, on the November ballot.