Palo Alto dumps controversial fire-staffing study
City to look for new consultant as it prepares for negotiations with the firefighters' union
Palo Alto officials have scrapped a much-anticipated study into staffing levels at the Fire Department after learning that the consultant in charge of the study is unlikely to give them the type of information they're looking for, Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil said Wednesday.
The city had hired the firm Emergency Services Consulting International in February to perform a "standards of coverage" study and to offer recommendations on staffing levels in the department. The study was scheduled to be completed in June and to help inform city officials in their negotiations with the Palo Alto Firefighters, Local 1319, whose contract expires on June 30.
But the city fired the consultant, Joe Parrott, last Friday, days after a City Council committee heard a preliminary report on the study and learned Parrott is affiliated with the International Association of Fire Chiefs — a support network for fire chiefs and emergency-response leaders — and has never recommended a staffing reduction to any municipalities for whom he's consulted.
Antil said that after hearing the overview last week, staff decided that Parrott's report wouldn't give the council the type of in-depth analysis of staffing levels and overtime that the city was hoping to see. She said staff is now proposing a new study that would go beyond the "standards of coverage" analysis and focus on staffing levels and overtime expenditures, which have soared in recent years.
"The overview they gave at the Finance Committee did not give us any preliminary analysis," Antil said.
The committee learned at its April 20 meeting that Parrott, who was hired for the $55,000 study, serves as a deputy fire chief in Salem, Ore., and has never recommended reducing staffing. Councilman Larry Klein said he was concerned about Parrott's "institutional bias," while Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said he was "amazed" and "flabbergasted" by the city's decision to hire a consultant who has never recommended shrinking the staff.
Tony Spitaleri, president of the firefighters' union, accused the city of killing the study because it seemed unlikely to give the council the conclusion it was seeking. Spitaleri said the city's decision to scrap the study only confirms the union's argument that the public needs to have a greater say on its public-safety operations.
Spitaleri also disputed the city's assertion that Parrott's status as a professional firefighter makes him biased in any way.
"But who do they want to perform the study, a shipbuilder?" Spitaleri said.
The union is currently circulating a petition that would require Palo Alto voters to approve any decision to reduce Fire Department staff or close a fire station. The petition needs to garner 5,442 signatures by mid-June to qualify for the November ballot.
"They want someone to come in and say, 'You have too many firefighters,' so that they can take it into negotiations and hold it over our heads and tell us they have to reduce firefighters," Spitaleri told the Weekly. "This is a good example for why we think the public should weigh in on whether public safety is adequate."
Parrott was chosen by a committee of high-level fire officials and financial analysts from the Utilities Department and the Administrative Services Department, Fire Chief Nick Marinaro told the committee.
With the city facing a projected $8.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1, council members are preparing for tough negotiations with the firefighters' union. Last week, the council passed a resolution calling the proposal in the petition "bad governance" and asking voters not to sign it.
Spitaleri said the petition has already garnered more than 3,000 signatures.
Marinaro said the scope of Parrott's staffing study didn't meet the intent of a 2003 city audit, which recommended a fresh analysis of staffing levels at the department. The new scope will give more consideration to minimum-staffing and overtime issues, he said.
"We just felt it was more prudent to erase the slate and start over," Marinaro said.
READ MORE ONLINE
The Weekly's original article about the committee's concern, 'Council members: Bias in fire-staffing study?' was posted on April 21 and can be found on Palo Alto Online.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.