The negotiations formally kicked off Wednesday — at a time of heightened tensions between the council and firefighters, whose current contract expires June 30. On May 18, members of the council's Finance Committee repeatedly accused the Fire Department of not "stepping up to the plate" by helping trim the department's proposed budget for 2011. The budget would raise net expenditures by $1.8 million as other departments brace for sharp cuts and layoffs.
The union countered that all non-essential positions in the department have already been axed.
Tensions are exacerbated by the union local spearheading a ballot measure that would change the City Charter to require Palo Alto to hold an election before making any Fire Department layoffs or closing of fire stations.
Tony Spitaleri, president of the 108-member union, said the firefighters' initiative petition already has close to 7,000 signatures, more than enough to qualify for the November ballot.
The department has an annual budget of about $25 million budget, though it also brings the city about $11 million in revenues every year, chiefly from contracting fire-protection and paramedic services to Stanford University and providing medical transport as part of the department paramedics program.
Both sides told the Weekly this week that while they remain somewhat optimistic they don't expect any quick resolutions to the ongoing areas of dispute. Perhaps the most contentious issue is the "minimum staffing" provision in the union's contract — an agreement that was adopted in the late 1970s, shortly after the Palo Alto's department merged with Stanford University's.
The provision requires the city to staff at least 29 firefighters per shift, making it virtually impossible for the city to reduce non-administrative staff in the department. City Manager James Keene's proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 recommends eliminating 75 full-time-equivalent positions in the city but only one in the Fire Department — a hazardous-materials specialist.
Spitaleri told the Weekly that the union had already made two informal offers to the city, which he said would have saved the city $1.1 million. Spitaleri said the city "turned a deaf ear" to the offer. He said he is convinced the city will try to remove the minimum-staffing provision during negotiations — a move the union strongly resists.
"If minimum staffing goes away, we feel very confident that what they will do is close stations, which will have an impact on the community when it comes to response time," Spitaleri said.
Keene said the minimum-staffing provision is "worth talking about," particularly in light of the recent compensation reductions other labor groups agreed (or were forced) to take over the past year. Keene said neither his staff nor the City Council have proposed laying off any firefighters or closing any stations. But the city should have flexibility in discussing Fire Department staffing levels, he said.
"The minimum-staffing requirement in the contract really precludes reduction in the department," Keene told the Weekly. "You can't even have a discussion about different ways of staffing in the department."
The city recently commissioned a study to analyze department staffing levels and make recommendations. The $60,000 study is scheduled to be completed in mid-summer.
Regardless of what the study recommends, both Keene and the council have indicated they would be seeking concessions from the union, much as they have from other labor groups. Last year, both the Service Employees International Union and the city's Professional and Management group saw their benefits rolled back through a two-tiered system, where future hires get lower benefits, in addition to reductions in health coverage.
"We've made no secret that we think that as we get into our negotiations with the public-safety unions we'll be seeking similar significant ongoing savings for the city," Keene said.
"The city needs to have every employee group making actual ongoing cost savings."
The Finance Committee took a similar stance on May 18 when it rejected Fire Chief Nick Marinaro's proposed budget for 2011. The budget includes an increase of more than $1 million to salaries and benefits.
Marinaro told the committee that because of the minimum-staffing provision the department wouldn't save any money by cutting the number of firefighters. Instead, some more experienced (and higher paid) firefighters would have to fill the vacated positions, sending overtime costs spiking.
"It's essentially a wash," Marinaro said. "One of the reasons we stayed at full staffing is that it actually saves a little bit of money — we pay entry-level firefighters a lower rate than if we paid captains overtime to work."
In lieu of staff reductions, Marinaro has identified other potential cost-saving measures, some of which he called "draconian."
One proposal would eliminate the fire chief position after Marinaro retires in June and create a "public safety director" position that oversees both the police and fire departments. Other ideas include removing the Office of Emergency Services from the Fire Department; reorganizing the Fire Prevention Bureau, which handles environmental and safety management, including permits for fire-alarm systems; and scrapping the department's paramedics service.
Marinaro also told the Weekly that closing Station 8 at Foothill Park remains an option, albeit a politically difficult one that neither he nor Keene recommends. According to the city's 2009 Service Efforts and Accomplishments Report, the station received just four service calls in fiscal year 2009 (compared to 2,605 calls at Station 1 on Alma Street and the roughly 1,000 calls at each of the department's other Palo Alto stations). But any move to close the station would likely face resistance from residents in the sparsely populated, open-space district — particularly those who remember the 1985 fire near the foothills that destroyed 150 acres and destroyed four houses in Palo Alto and 11 in Los Altos Hills.
Even if the council were to accept one or more of these proposals, the city is expected to take a tough stance on firefighter compensations during the negotiations. The Finance Committee directed Marinaro on May 18 to assume a 4 percent reduction in salaries and benefits.
Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa, the only committee member to dissent, argued the council shouldn't "build budgets based on contracts that don't exist."
Despite the recent tension, Keene told the Weekly he is confident both sides will be able to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, however long that takes.
"I know the city is completely committed to achieving a contract with the firefighters' union that would work in the interests of both the firefighters and the city," Keene said. "I'm optimistic now, but the negotiations may take some time."
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