Defying a citywide trend, members of the Palo Alto Fire Department saw their collective salaries go up by 9 percent between 2009 and 2010, data from the city's Administrative Services Department shows.
The combined salaries for members of the Palo Alto Fire Department totaled $16.5 million in 2010, compared to $15.1 million the year before. The figure includes overtime expenditures, which jumped from $2.1 million to $2.5 million -- a 20 percent spike.
The figures illustrate the dramatic difference between Fire Department, where salary expenditures continue to rise, and every other department supported by the city's General Fund. (The Administrative Services data lists all 1,550 employees who were on the city's payroll in 2010.) City management is currently in the midst of negotiations with the firefighters union over a new contract. At the City Council's January retreat, City Manager James Keene talked about bringing the city's public-safety employees "into alignment" with other labor groups that have recently been hit with salary freezes and benefit reductions.
Of the two major unions that represent public-safety workers, it's the firefighters union that has posed the biggest budget-balancing obstacle for city management. The Police Department's overtime expenditures fell by 12.8 percent, from $1.4 million to $1.2 million, between 2009 and 2010 even though its total salary expenditures (which include base pay, overtime and various reimbursements) went down by less than 1 percent.
The city's Community Service Department was among the hardest hit by the recent cuts, data shows. The combined salaries of department employees dropped from $8.9 million in 2009 to $7.8 million in 2010 -- a 12.3 percent reduction. The combined salaries in the Planning and Community Services Department dropped by 8.8 percent between 2009 and 2010, while those in the Administrative Services Department fell by 8 percent.
The falling numbers reflect recent efforts by Keene and the council to keep expenditures in line with the city's tax revenues, which have dropped over the past two years as a result of the recession. Palo Alto has already eliminated 40 positions in the current fiscal year and 20 positions in fiscal year 2010.
The city also outsourced some of the functions that have traditionally been performed by city workers. The council agreed last year to contract out the maintenance of city parks (formerly the purview of the Community Services Department) and print operations (traditionally performed by the Administrative Services Department).
In this period of belt-tightening, the Fire Department stands out as an anomaly. The department's budget remained largely untouched last year, even as other departments, including the police, faced cutbacks. Firefighters also tried to change the City Charter in November to require a citywide vote before any firefighter positions could be eliminated or any fire stations could be closed -- a proposal that was shot down by city voters in November.
The department's rising expenditures are driven in large part by the "minimum staffing" clause in the city's contract with the union -- a requirement that forces the city to have at least 29 firefighters on duty at all times. As a result, when a firefighter gets injured or goes on vacation, his or her colleagues have to fill in and, in some cases, put in extra time.
The department also relies on overtime to staff Station 8, a fire station in the foothills that only remains open during the summer season.
The trend of rising overtime is reflected in the latest salary data. Whereas only four firefighters made it to the Top 10 list of overtime earners in 2008, eight made the list in 2009. Last year, nine of the top 10 overtime earners (and 26 of the top 30) were in the Fire Department. The department's overtime expenditure of $2.5 million in 2010 was more than double the amount the city spent on fire overtime in 2003.
The Palo Alto council is now considering ways to reverse the trend. Last year, the council hired two consultants to review the Fire Department's operation and recommend ways to make the department more efficient. Last month, the consultants' report recommended, among other things, ending the practice of staffing Station 8 with overtime and scrapping the minimum-staffing requirement in the city's contract with the fire union.
The council will discuss the status of the city's labor negotiations Monday night.
(Editor's note: The Weekly has decided not to publish the names and salaries of the 608 lowest-paid employees -- those who earned less than $51,000 and who collectively accounted for only 7.4 percent of the city's $101 million in salaries.)