If Palo Alto's public-safety unions don't agree to millions of dollars in concessions, the city may have to cut 12 percent of its police force, eliminate a fire-engine company and consider instituting station "brownouts" to balance the annual budget, Interim Public Safety Director Dennis Burns wrote in a recent memo.
In his proposed 2012 budget, City Manager James Keene assumes $4.3 million in concessions from the city's two main public-safety unions, the Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, and Palo Alto Police Officers' Associations. The fire union's contract expired last year and the city remains at an impasse with the union over a new agreement. The two sides are preparing for binding arbitration.
The city is also embarking on talks with the police union, which will see its current contract expire at the end of June.
Keene and the council anticipate receiving $2.3 million in savings from the fire union and $2 million from the police union.
But if things don't work out at the negotiating table, the city would have to find other ways to balance the budget. On May 5, the council's Finance Committee directed staff to come up with a list of cuts the council could implement if the unions don't agree to concessions. Councilman Greg Scharff also asked staff to devise "innovative" ways to operate the departments to save money without reducing service levels.
"If we have to make public-safety cuts, I don't want the services in Palo Alto to change," Scharff said. "That's a bedrock principle that's really important."
Burns, who heads both the police and fire departments, wrote in the memo that cutting the police budget by $2 million would be particularly challenging given that the department has already slashed 31 positions since fiscal year 2003. To save $2 million, the city would have to cut another 11 sworn-officer positions, reducing the total number of these positions from 91 to 80.
The eliminated jobs would likely include detectives, traffic officers and patrol officers, Burns wrote.
"Unfortunately, we are unable to suggest cuts that do not impact patrol, traffic and investigative services in some way," Burns wrote.
Last year, the city considered cutting two detective positions, ending the school-crossing guard program and eliminating the five-officer "traffic team." The council ultimately rejected these cuts.
Reducing positions in the Fire Department could prove to be an even trickier proposition. Palo Alto's contract with the fire union has a minimum-staffing clause that requires at least 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times. Despite the provision, Burns' memo lays out two options for cutting department costs, both of which include staff reductions.
Under one option, the city would reduce daily line staffing from 29 to 26 firefighters by eliminating one engine company. If on any given day, staffing levels were to fall to 25 personnel, the city would start "browning out" fire stations (temporarily closing a company).
Under the other option, the city would eliminate an engine company and a rescue company, shrinking staff from 108 to 90 positions. This option would also eliminate the city's hazardous-material response capabilities, Burns wrote.
Burns wrote that the options were developed quickly and would need more analysis before anything is implemented. He noted in the memo that he remains optimistic that the anticipated labor concessions will be achieved.
"Although we cannot predict to what extent, we assume that any changes to staffing will impact service levels to the community in some way (e.g. response times, community outreach, enforcement activities, etc.)," Burns wrote. "This would need to be addressed through a restructuring of the department to mitigate any negative outcomes.
"Concessions from the employee groups are clearly preferable to undertaking such changes immediately."
The City Council Finance Committee will discuss Burns' memo at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in the Council Chambers at City Hall.