Editorial: A little sanity from fire union

Effort to stop public vote on binding arbitration is withdrawn, for now

After apparently rethinking its "shoot first, ask questions later" strategy, Local 1319 of Palo Alto Professional Firefighters sensibly agreed to withdraw its attack on the binding-arbitration ballot issue that will go before Palo Alto voters in November.

When the City Council approved the measure last month, it did not take long for union president Tony Spitaleri to seek an injunction that would keep the measure off the ballot. But after meeting with City Attorney Molly Stump and a member of the Public Employee Relations Board last week, Spitaleri apparently came to his senses and withdrew the challenge, at least until after another meeting set for Sept. 13.

The ballot issue is controversial -- passing the City Council by a 5-4 vote, but it is the city's only chance to end the union's iron grip on staffing levels in a department that desperately needs to reduce expenses. Last year consultants hired by the city said the current fire department staffing levels are arbitrary and hamper efficiency by requiring the department to always have at least 29 firefighters on duty.

Recent studies conclude that without the binding arbitration requirement, which exists in only a handful of California cities, the city could manage the department more efficiently. One consultant said that he has never encountered an organization that has "the same workload at 2 a.m. in the morning and at 2 p.m. in the afternoon." He added, that "by setting minimum staffing, you're never able to adjust your staffing to meet the demand."

The repeal of binding arbitration is only one piece of needed reforms in the operation of the fire department, and might have been avoided if firefighters had worked cooperatively to bring down department expenses in response to the city's budget challenges.

The city's other unions, including the police, offered concessions but Spitaleri and the firefighters stood alone, refusing to give an inch unless the city accepted minimum staffing levels, which forced negotiations on a new contract to impasse. Now the two sides are headed to binding arbitration.

It has been an ill-conceived strategy from the start, and it is a shame that the dedicated men and women of the department, who already receive generous wages and benefits, are dragged into this fight by union leaders.

The binding arbitration provision in the current firefighters' contract takes away the council's ability to manage the city's finances and balance its budget, since it ultimately places financial decisions in the hands of an outside arbitrator.

Prior to voting to place the question on the ballot, the council adopted a 2012 budget with a $4.3 million hole that the city hopes to fill with concessions from the public safety unions.

Local voters have already been through this obsession by firefighters to set their own staffing rules. Last November, they overwhelmingly rejected a union-backed ballot measure that would have frozen department staffing levels and forced the city to hold an election before it could close a fire station or reduce staffing. Such an arrangement would give the union extraordinary powers over management of a city department, a power-grab that voters wisely rejected.

Binding arbitration has only been used six times since it was adopted by the city, but its mere existence significantly influences how the city conducts its negotiations with firefighters and police unions.

"We really have been constrained by binding arbitration's presence because in order to avoid it we have settled for something less that where we need to be," City Council member Karen Holman said.

The November repeal measure includes a section requiring that all disputes between the city and public safety and non-public safety labor unions go to mandatory, but non-binding mediation.

If voters agree to scrap binding arbitration, the city's updated partnership with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District could ease the concerns voiced by Spitaleri that the city has already reduced department staffing to unsafe levels. In the upgraded deal the two departments agree to cover adjacent areas around Palo Alto's northern border in an automatic aid arrangement. Palo Alto will extend coverage to Bay Road in East Palo Alto and the Menlo Park district's coverage to West Bayshore, the Palo Alto Airport and the Baylands.

Whatever happens in the November election, the Palo Alto firefighters need to take on their fair share of the budgetary load that is confronting the city during this economic downturn. In our view, binding arbitration has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. This would give the city the tools it needs to manage all the public safety agencies fairly, just as they do all other bargaining units.

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Posted by George
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 12, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Tony Spitaleri continues to be elected by a majority of Palo Alto fire employees who vote. They pick their own union management, and it is obvious they know in advance what they are going to get. That's on them.

Binding arbitration is on us, and we can vote to get rid of it this November. I certainly plan to. Most Palo Alto voters, after considering all the facts, are likely to do the same. Just like last year.

Last year, fire union members gave it everything they had trying to pass their featherbedding Measure R. Palo Alto voters overwhelmingly rejected that power grab.

This year, the fire union will again take their best shot trying to stop the repeal of binding arbitration. Union efforts are again likely to go up in smoke, since Tony typically makes his case solely with smoke and mirrors.

Sadly, one power-hungry union can thwart the good will and compromise all other Palo Alto unions offer. It is time the fire union is reminded by the community that the tail does not wag the dog.

Like this comment
Posted by Just the Facts
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2011 at 12:43 pm

The consultant who said he has never encountered an organization with the same workload at 2 am as 2 pm is incompetent.

1. PAFD has two seven day/week paramedic positions and two five day/week EMT positions that operate during daytime hours only, so the consultant doesn't even realize that PAFD is that organization.

2. FLSA work rules make 24 hour shifts the most economic way to staff fire department emergency response operations. Every metropolitan fire department in California uses this staffing model.

PAFD could operate with one less fire station, but it would require demolishing two stations and building a new one midway between them. The real estate costs would be prohibitive but it could be done. Closing a fire station with no other changes will leave portions of town with delayed response, as was recognized by the study the City Council commissioned.

Like this comment
Posted by Kudos
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 15, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Kudos to the police officer union and other unions who gave concessions to help the City in a time of need.

Like this comment
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Removing binding arbitration from the PA city charter is an important step on the path to restoring fiscal sanity. Others include:
1.) switching all government servants (except maybe military) to a defined contribution (not defined benefit) plan
2.) change the age at which safety employees can start collecting benefits to same age as the Social Security (67?)
3.) limit annual retirement payouts to government employees to $50K
4.) restructure service model so emergency safety employees spend more time working than sleeping.

We have created a class of entitled government employees who are going to be collecting huge payouts for most of their adult lives, while the rest of work late in to life to try to fund their lavish lifestyles. then our kids will take over the burden. It is completely unsustainable and up to us to change, NOW.

Time to wake up folks!!

Like this comment
Posted by Gordon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm

George & Taxpayer: your comments are great, and this editorial is spot on. The PA Fire Dep't is out of control and desperately needs reigning in. I can't wait to vote away binding arbitration, and I will consider the PA Firefighter Union rogue as long as Tony Spitaleri is in charge!

Like this comment
Posted by Ernesto USMC
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 15, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I agree with Taxpayer, and with regard to military compensation I'd add that even with pensions that cap out at 50% in the military (50% of much, much lower base pay, I would add), there are still plenty of people willing to serve in a job far more hazardous than firefighting in Palo Alto. It's nuts to pay six figures and 90% (also six figure) pensions at 50 to firefighters when countless candidates would happily fill the jobs for 60K and 401K style pensions.

The job may have been truly dangerous at some point but now its mostly routine medical calls (~98%) and standby time.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 16, 2011 at 8:29 am

I will believe that the fire fighters union has gained some semblance of 'sanity' when the rank and file dump Spilitari - who indeed is a high official of a neighboring community. Until then, they are just meek mice following a power driven Pied Piper.

Like this comment
Posted by ann
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 16, 2011 at 8:48 am

TAXPAYER....i'm awake...and glad to see others awakening...all government employees should not receive pensions until the same age as social security benefits begin..and no more double dipping....this insanity has got to be stopped.....the tail is wagging the dog....

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