Seeking to curb costs in a time of tight budgets, Palo Alto is considering merging its Police and Fire departments.
City Manager James Keene told a City Council committee Thursday night that he is evaluating whether to consolidate the city's police and fire operations into one Public Safety Department. The move, he said, would create efficiencies by reducing administrative costs at a time when the city is facing years of budget challenges brought on by steeply rising pension and health-care costs.
City officials haven't yet decided whether to pursue the merger because they are waiting for the results of an independent analysis of the city's emergency medical services -- a report that is scheduled to be released this summer. But Keene indicated Thursday he is leaning toward creating a single department to oversee the two major public-safety functions.
"My own inclination is to have a public-safety department," Keene told the council's Finance Committee during the committee's discussion of fire and police budgets. "I just have to think that for the long-term at least, efficiencies on support, the administration backbone and all of those sorts of things are worthwhile."
Keene also said he believes co-locating the police and fire operations in one public-safety facility is in the "long-term interest of our community."
Palo Alto's two public-safety departments already share the same leader -- Dennis Burns, who is both the police chief and the acting fire chief. A recent report from the consulting firms TriData and ICMA, which analyzed the city's Fire Department operations, recommended making the "public safety director" position permanent.
The city's exploration of a public-safety merger is part of a broader effort to cut costs by considering new models for providing services. Palo Alto is also working with Mountain View and Los Altos to set up a shared dispatch system that would allow the three cities to easily back each other up during emergencies -- a system that is also expected to bring long-term savings and efficiencies.
"It's just very clear that we wouldn't be able to in any place keep doing things the way they've always been done," Keene said.
These broad, strategic efforts will not, however, lead to immediate savings. Instead, Keene and the council plan to balance the fiscal year 2012 budget largely by assuming that the city's firefighter and police unions will make major concessions. The firefighters' contract expired last year, and the city has not been able to reach a new labor agreement with the firefighters' union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319. The parties are preparing to take their labor dispute to binding arbitration this fall.
The police union's contract will expire June 30.
Despite the stalled negotiations with the firefighters' union, the council and Keene are banking on achieving $4.3 million in savings from the two labor groups. If that doesn't work, they plan to institute staffing and service cuts in the middle of the fiscal year.
Committee Chair Greg Scharff said he is confident the Palo Alto Police Officers Association, which has agreed to defer its members' raises in the past, will make the necessary concessions to avoid layoffs. He said he was less confident when it comes to the firefighters.
"There's a big difference between police and fire," Scharff said. "All indications have been that police will work with us in terms of union negotiations. We are not at an impasse; we are not going to arbitration.
"I don't feel that way about fire," he added. "The fire (union's) actions speak for themselves."
The concessions from the two labor groups aren't reflected in Keene's proposed budgets for the Police and Fire departments, each of which is slated to rise by about $1 million in fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1. The anticipated savings are, however, included in a "non-departmental budget" category, which staff said will be used to offset the rising expenditures and ultimately balance the budget.
The committee supported the bulk of Keene's recommendations for the police and fire budgets but concluded its discussion with more questions than answers, particularly when it comes to firefighters. The committee unanimously approved the proposed police budget but voted to continue its discussion of the fire budget to a later date. The committee also gave Fire Department officials the arduous task of identifying department savings that would not impact service levels.
The assignment is particularly tricky given the minimum-staffing provision in the fire union's contract -- a provision that requires 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times. The provision constrains the city's ability to reduce staffing levels and lower expenditures in the Fire Department.
"If we don't come to an agreement on minimum staffing, we don't come to agreement on wages and benefits," Scharff said.
Councilman Greg Schmid said a major key to getting the public-safety budgets balanced is to take a closer look at the staffing levels in the Fire Department. He noted that firefighters' staffing level exceeds that of the police officers by about 25 percent.
"It seems clear the staffing issue is a major one," Schmid said. "It seems to fall on the shoulders of the Fire rather than the Police department."
The committee agreed that the 2012 budget should be balanced without major service cuts or elimination of such programs as school crossing guards and the Police Department's traffic team -- options that were on the table last year. Scharff called for more "innovation" and said he doesn't see any reason why any services should be cut. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd agreed.
"We're looking for innovation and creativity to make this work for everybody," Shepherd said.