New firefighter contract may stave off layoffs

Long-awaited agreement to save city $1.1 million in current fiscal year, create new rules for pension, health care

Palo Alto's breakthrough agreement with its firefighter union over a new labor contract will save the city more than $1 million in the current fiscal year and will likely keep the city from laying off police officers and closing fire stations, a prospect city officials have been considering since May.

The tentative contract, which the city unveiled Wednesday night and which the City Council is scheduled to officially approve Monday night, includes a host of structural changes to firefighter benefits, including a second pension tier for new employees and a requirement that employees contribute 10 percent toward their medical premiums.

Firefighters will also now be required to chip in toward their own pension plan rather than having the city pay both the employer and employee shares to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). Under the proposed contract, union members will immediately start paying 6.5 percent of the PERS member contribution -- a share that will rise to 9 percent next year.

Most importantly, the contract removes the long-standing and controversial "minimum staffing" provision, which requires at least 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times. Instead, the contract sets staffing levels for individual engines, trucks and rescue companies -- levels that are "consistent with standards commonly followed in most fire agencies," according to a report form Interim Human Resource Director Sandra Blanch.

The minimum-staffing provision has come under fire over the past two years from the City Council and City Manager James Keene, who called eliminating it the key to the new agreement with the firefighters. Union President Tony Spitaleri had argued in the past that the provision is necessary to ensure adequate staffing levels in the department and maintain safety.

"The City and fire union representatives discussed this extensively and agreed that eliminating the shift staffing provision provides the City with the flexibility to take an engine out of service and/or close, reduce or 'brown out' the service of a station if needed for operational, efficiency, financial or any other reason," Blanch wrote in the report.

The minimum-staffing provision has been completely deleted in the new contract and replaced with an "apparatus staffing" section that specifies that each engine, truck and rescue company will be staffed with one fire captain, one "fire apparatus operator" and one firefighter. The fire department's paramedic unit will also be staffed by two personnel.

The two sides reached a contract after a 16-month standoff, a declared "impasse," and the launching of binding-arbitration proceedings. In June, the City Council passed a budget with a $4.3 million hole in it -- a hole that the council planned to fill with $2.3 million in concessions from firefighters and $2 million from police officers. In May, Interim Director of Public Safety Dennis Burns reported to the council that without these concessions, the city would have to eliminate 11 police officer positions and shut down at least one engine company to close the budget gap.

At Tuesday's debate over Measure D -- a proposal to repeal binding arbitration for public-safety unions from the City Charter -- Councilman Greg Scharff referenced the Burns' presentation and said laying off 11 police officers was "simply not acceptable to us."

Though the new contract only shaves $1.1 million off the $4.3 gap, the budget adjustments are now unlikely to be as draconian as initially feared. According to David Ramberg, assistant director of the Administrative Services Department, the city has seen "modest improvements" in the local economy, with sales tax revenues about $1.2 million higher than projected in the 2011 budget.

Under a new proposal, which the council's Finance Committee is scheduled to discuss Tuesday, the city would close the $4.3 million gap with $1.1 million pegged from funds that were set aside for pension and healthcare increases in 2013 and a $2.1 million transfer from the city's Budget Stabilization Reserve, which has increased because of the improved economy.

If the committee and, ultimately, the council approve the plan, it would effectively close the $4.3 million gap without requiring any significant reductions in service levels. In his report, Ramberg alluded to the layoffs and station brownouts and said that because "these reductions could have an impact on service delivery, staff is also pursuing labor concessions through contract negotiations with the four public-safety unions."

"It is the City Manager's recommendation to not proceed with these cost saving reductions at this time," Ramberg wrote. "These service level reduction options could still be considered depending on how negotiations proceed."

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Like this comment
Posted by Blondie
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 13, 2011 at 10:33 am

Well, the outcome is good for the City, but to think it took
16-months is sad - especially when there are unemployed people desperate for jobs.

Like this comment
Posted by Jane
a resident of University South
on Oct 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Certainly hope Measure D passes, and that the firefighters have learned a tiny bit of humility and of sharing with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, they will use their willingness to compromise on this contract, for the express purpose of trying to defeat Measure D.

Like this comment
Posted by Get Tough
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm

The headline of this story is: "New Firefighter's Contract may stave off layoffs." Why? We don't need 29 firefighters on duly 24/7 - cut that number back and close a firehouse or two. Meanwhile, vote "yes" on Measure D which will help the City get a handle on this over-staffing problem.

Like this comment
Posted by huh?
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 13, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Wait, Budget stabilization reserve? how much money is in this reserve account?

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Posted by SPH
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 13, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Get Tough, did you miss the part that it was 11 Police officers to be laid off? Really, the police decline their pay raise, work harder, have far more dangerous jobs, and they were planning on screwing them over?

I think it is convenient that they over estimated the $4.3 million. I think the city is lying to get its way. I agree with cuts but at least be honest about the situation.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 14, 2011 at 8:00 am

Get Tough said "The headline of this story is: "New Firefighter's Contract may stave off layoffs." Why? We don't need 29 firefighters on duly 24/7 - cut that number back and close a firehouse or two."

Ok then which "one or two" would you close exactly. may have this wrong but I think there are 8.
You can not touch-
Stanford - contract with university
SLAC - contract with SLAC
Foothills Park - only open during fire season
College Terrace (Hanover?) - largely paid for by occupants (companies) of the Stanford Industrial Park and houses an ambulance and hazmat
Downtown - has ambulance and is one of the busiest station.

That leaves
Embarcadero - bad idea during the summer since it is right next to a public pool
Middlefield - covers the SE side of the city
Arastradero - covers the SW side including the upper Page Mill area

So which one or two of those three would you close?

Like this comment
Posted by Get tough
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2011 at 9:29 am

Get Tough, did you miss the part that it was 11 Police officers to be laid off? SPH, Palo Alto Police used to number over 97, they have less than 87 on duty right now.

John, you can close the fire house near me in south Palo Alto because it won't make any difference to response times.

Like this comment
Posted by Karen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2011 at 10:15 am

We the public should really be demanding both a more sensible staffing arrangement and a lowering of firefighter pay to something more reasonable, when compared to the market and when compared to the police. Applicants would line up around the block to replace the firefighters at much much lower pay and pensions. The police, meanwhile, do a more important and dangerous job than the firefighters (isn't it something like 98 or 99% of the calls have nothing to do with fires these days?) but get paid about the same.

You can close the station by my house too, and I'm fine with it. Fire union fear mongering aside, the cost is out of control and does not justify the added benefit, if any. Police layoffs should never be on the table as long as firefighters are making as much as police officers and retiring on six figure pensions at 50.

Yes on D. It will allow the city to better address wasteful spending due to over-rewarding certain special interest groups at the expense of the public and/or the more productive employees.

Like this comment
Posted by Erin S.
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 14, 2011 at 10:27 am

I live near the Arastradero fire station. The firefighters are friendly, happy to let the neighborhood kids climb on the trucks, etc. I like them as poeple, but can't say I'm too happy as a taxpayer. The firefighters I talk to themselves even admit they're overstaffed and the gig is quite a cushy one. While I don't resent the individuals, we just should not be paying over 100k per year for anyone to underwork two shifts per week when the city can use the money for schools or roads or more police, etc. I'm going to vote yes.

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Posted by Logic
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Yeah that's right they don't even fight fire as much as they used to. Probably because they did such a good job of proactive code enforcement (sprinklers) and education. Those guys really painted themselves in a corner by cutting off their revenue source. Fires! They actually had to become proactive an use creative and forward thinking like dealing with car wrecks, hazardous material spills, public education, plane crashes. Our foothills park wildland fires (there was one that almost got hairy) and not to mention medical calls with two transport ambulances (70% of calls).

Yeah... Fires are only a small part of what they do. Those guys really need better pr so we canactually realize they are multiservice emergency services and not just fires. It's also interesting they were smart enough to get 1/3 of their 20+ million operating budget paid by stanford for running stations for Stanford. That coupled with working a minimum of 3000 hours a year. Why don't we all know this type of info. Go by a fire house and get the stats. Newspapers report their info, fire has theirs. Somewhere in the middle is truth. I'm just saying they may need to change their name so we can value the bran of service they provide

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Posted by Karen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Here's a telling stat:

Web Link

Has the fire department increased their value add to the city by ~50% more than the rest of government in the last decade?

Like this comment
Posted by breakdown
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Approx increases according to that graph:
Planning: 4m->11m (175%)
Public Works: 8m->13m (63%)
Admin: 16m->17m (6%)
CSD&Lib: 18m->28m (56%)
Public Safety: 32m->61m (91%)

Like this comment
Posted by Logic
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Karen great stat... Manipulated masterfully by the city to their advantage. Now do this. Separate out fire and police. Fire total is 27.2 mil. 8 mil from Stanford, 2 from their ambulances. Remaining net is 17 million. Don't see that on the website?

Like this comment
Posted by breakdown
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Logic, are you saying that we need to take 10m off the Public Safety numbers? (32-10)m->(61-10)m?

So the actual increase is %132!?

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Posted by Karen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Well put breakdown.

The police have been making concessions due to the tough economic times in recent years. The fire union? They ran a featherbedding measure in last year's election, fought tooth and nail to keep the inefficient minimum staffing rules, and agreed to a contract only after it became clear they weren't going to be able to muzzle the public by keeping measure D off of the ballot.

Like this comment
Posted by Keep Fire Stations Open
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I love my CSAA Auto Insurance; personally, I believe I have the platinum membership. When my car breaks down away from home with my kids and wife in it; this clean yellow truck shows up and takes care of them. As we rarely drive more than a couple hundred miles from home, I know that if we have a break down, this clean yellow truck will bring us safely home {which they did last summer}. Now, it's costs me a little bit more for this plan, yet, I saved a great deal, when my van blew up in the middle of no where on HWY 80 late one Saturday night. Last year, my father-in-law had a heart attack while staying with us in Barron Park; those nice firefighters and paramedics arrived within a few minutes. My kids grandfather was well cared for and quickly transported to Stanford where they took similar great care of him. Again, I was glad that this team of first responders was available to care for me. The reason we moved to Palo Alto in the first place was for excellent city services and good schools.

We get what we pay for. Our family, feels well served by the current level of fire and police services in Palo Alto.

We live on the San Adreas Fault; most local schools, Stanford, Stanford Hospital, and the VA Hospital are built close to this fault. Our city floods, the hills burn, sometimes our houses blow up, and our children have take bombs to school and they lie down in front of trains when they are stressed out. Many of the residents who live in town and at Stanford influence our local and our global community. Traffic continues become more congested; so I'd prefer our local firefighters and police officers be available and be close by when needed. Statistics can be tilted based on the statistican and the point the researcher wants to prove. The city has spent over a million dollars playing with the Arastradero Road traffic cooridor and traffic has goten worse and it doesn't make any sense to our family. So the city has decided to extend the study period one year. The same decision makers now are pointing their opinions at our fire department; personally, I'd prefer if they just left our fire department alone. We like having firefighter paramedic available on Arastradero Road; they have brought value to our family and taken excellent care of us. Feels good to see them giving tours at their station; then they are available to come to our house if needed. Take a cpr class and learn about the chain of survival; personally, we want our firefighters and paramedics close by and available. If the weather was nicer, we'd pick up and move to Seattle or Kings County, WA.

Like this comment
Posted by Logic
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Absolutely.... Not!!! Let me clarify. Actual costs (money taken to run public safety) versus including the subsidy does not equal your 22 mil to 51 mil ratio. Skewing statistics is a common mistake. Consider the effect of a subsidy. Subsidies do not decrease actual costs (62 to 52). Rather they are considered a savings. True that a ratio will change. Your calculation shows the percentage effect increase after a subsidy has been implemented. Here is an example of how to skew a stat

If public safety cost 100 million in year n+1 but used to be 50 million in year n, the argument could be made that costs have doubled 100% to 200%. Now implement a subsidy of say.... 40 million. Your math would deduce a misleading stat that year n net cost is 10 million and year n+1 net cost 60 million. Wait for it...... That would be a 600% change. Cool stat right? that's what you did with your math. The truth still remains in my example that the net cost is actually 60 million. This is a point that went straight over your head (not surprised). Do yourself a favor and become educated. You only strengthened my point that statistics are misleading. In the end palo alto fire made 10 million for the city. It changes the ratio.... But it is still 10 million saved.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Logic. Please refer to the City's annual Service Efforts & Accomplishments report. The Fire Dept. section gives details on the calls for service. In FY 2010 they responded to 182 fires, 1,013 false alarms, and 4,432 medical/rescue calls. It seems more emphasis should be placed on EMT response rather than roll expensive fire trucks for every call.

29 firefighters spend 24 hours a day in the fire stations eating, sleeping, and waiting for a call. Standing by for most of the 24 hours is hardly working 3000 hours per year.

And it was the City government who worked out the contract to have Station 6 paid for by Stanford, not the fire dept.

John. I think fire station 2 (Hanover) could be closed and the EMT ambulance could be stationed in a more central location. It takes about 1 to 2 minutes for the Station 4 truck (E. Meadow and Middlefield) to reach most locations of South Palo Alto and 5 to 7 minutes for the ambulance to get to the same locations. Fire station 2 is the busiest because it houses the ambulance.

Fire Station 6 also can quickly cover College Terrace as Station 2 does now. Station 5 is just a few minutes from Station 2. Quite an overlap when you look at a map.

I think Station 1 (Alma St.), 3 (Newell and Embarcadero), 4 (E. Meadow and Middlefield, 5 (Arastradero near El Camino) and 7 at Slac can cover the City with no loss of effectiveness. With a careful survey perhaps any one or two of these could be relocated - tough to do since land is so scarce - but this is another possibility for more equal City-wide coverage.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 14, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Bill I am sure I do not have all of the answer, but I know you are missing some things.

The SLAC station is dedicated to SLAC and they can not move the people off the SLAC site during emergencies elsewhere - they are site dedicated.

I do not think Hanover can close because it covers all of the Stanford industrial area and provides haz mat services paid for by the companies in their land leases. The station also covers some of the Page Mill areas. The ambulance at that station is used all night on Fri/Sat nights at least while Stanford is in session.

I agree then need more ambulances - because they pay for themselves and most of the calls are medical.

Like this comment
Posted by Erin S
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 14, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Voting yes on D will help keep fire stations open. They are not in danger of being closed because firefighters are making too little and turnover is killing the ability to stay staffed. In fact it is quite opposite. Overpaying firefighters runs directly contrary to keeping stations open. Those who want many many firefighters idling for the moment a disaster occurs need to be willing to stand up to their unions demands. D allows this.

Logic the discussion is about increases relative to other costs and value provided. Somebody called out your math. Telling people to "do yourself a favor and get educated" isn't going to change that.

Like this comment
Posted by breakdown
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Logic, if your net-cost has gone from 10m to 60m, that *is* a 600% increase!

You have challenged the net-cost figures so, by our own numbers, your the Public Safety net-cost has increased by 132%.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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