Firefighters' salaries rise, while citywide payroll decreases | March 4, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 4, 2011

Firefighters' salaries rise, while citywide payroll decreases

City of Palo Alto releases salary figures for employees; firefighters' collective pay went up 9 percent

by Gennady Sheyner

Defying a citywide trend, members of the Palo Alto Fire Department saw their collective salaries go up by 9 percent between 2009 and 2010, data from the city's Administrative Services Department shows.

The combined salaries for the fire department totaled $16.5 million in 2010, compared to $15.1 million the year before. The figure includes overtime expenditures, which jumped from $2.1 million to $2.5 million — a 20 percent spike.

The figures illustrate the dramatic difference between Fire Department, where salary expenditures continue to rise, and every other department supported by the city's General Fund.

In total, the salaries of Palo Alto workers dropped by more than $2 million in 2010 after several years of increases.

The city paid out $101 million in salaries last year, the lowest year since 2007, when the gross salaries totaled $98 million, according to the data. The number went up to $102.2 million in 2008 and to $103.4 million in 2009 before dipping by 2.2 percent last year.

The slight decrease in overall salaries reflects recent concessions made by the city's labor unions over the past two years, as Palo Alto's revenues dropped. The city also eliminated 40 positions from the General Fund in the current fiscal year, which began last July.

City management is currently in the midst of negotiations with the firefighters union over a new contract. At the City Council's January retreat, City Manager James Keene talked about bringing the city's public-safety employees "into alignment" with other labor groups that have recently been hit with salary freezes and benefit reductions.

Of the two major unions that represent public-safety workers, it's the firefighters union that has posed the biggest budget-balancing obstacle for city management. The Police Department's overtime expenditures fell by 12.8 percent, from $1.4 million to $1.2 million, between 2009 and 2010 even though its total salary expenditures (which include base pay, overtime and various reimbursements) went down by less than 1 percent.

The city's Community Service Department was among the hardest hit by the recent cuts, the data show. The combined salaries of department employees dropped from $8.9 million in 2009 to $7.8 million in 2010 — a 12.3 percent reduction. The combined salaries in the Planning and Community Services Department dropped by 8.8 percent between 2009 and 2010, while those in the Administrative Services Department fell by 8 percent.

The city has outsourced some of the functions that have traditionally been performed by city workers. The council agreed last year to contract out the maintenance of city parks (formerly the purview of the Community Services Department) and print operations (traditionally performed by the Administrative Services Department).

In this period of belt-tightening, the Fire Department stands out as an anomaly. The department's budget remained largely untouched last year, even as other departments, including the police, faced cutbacks. Firefighters also tried to change the City Charter in November to require a citywide vote before any firefighter positions could be eliminated or any fire stations could be closed — a proposal that was shot down by city voters in November.

The department's rising expenditures are driven in large part by the "minimum staffing" clause in the city's contract with the union — a requirement that forces the city to have at least 29 firefighters on duty at all times. As a result, when a firefighter gets injured or goes on vacation, his or her colleagues have to fill in and, in some cases, put in extra time.

The department also relies on overtime to staff Station 8, a fire station in the foothills that only remains open during the summer season.

The trend of rising overtime is reflected in the latest salary data. Whereas only four firefighters made it to the Top 10 list of overtime earners in 2008, eight made the list in 2009. Last year, nine of the top 10 overtime earners (and 26 of the top 30) were in the Fire Department. The department's overtime expenditure of $2.5 million in 2010 was more than double the amount the city spent on fire overtime in 2003.

The Palo Alto council is now considering ways to reverse the trend. Last year, the council hired two consultants to review the Fire Department's operation and recommend ways to make the department more efficient. Last month, the consultants' report recommended, among other things, ending the practice of staffing Station 8 with overtime and scrapping the minimum-staffing requirement in the city's contract with the fire union.

The council will discuss the status of the city's labor negotiations Monday night.


A list of City of Palo Alto workers' salaries is posted on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


Posted by Douglas, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Why am I not surprised by the title of this article. Disgusting.

Posted by Albert, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm

> scrapping the minimum-staffing requirement in the city's contract
> with the fire union.

This has got to be the back-breaker for the budget. Wonder if anyone in the City Manager's office has come up with a budget based on staffing without minimum-staffing?

Posted by City Manager, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Why is it that all unions are facing cutbacks, but yet the city manager is making the MOST in the entire city? Practice what you preach, Jim. You want to cut everyone elses benefits, so is it right for you to make $232,000 last year not to mention your 3% at 50 retirement plan plus other benefits. Seriously, lets start at the top and work to the bottom, not vice versa.

Posted by Don Hammond, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Interesting how the fire department's overtime is double the police department.

Posted by William, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm

This is crazy! Most of Firefighters making 40-70K in overtime, on top of their salary.
The city cannot keep paying these huge salaries.
Start with what the above person posted for San Jose Firefighters.

Posted by Jim, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by who cares, a resident of Triple El
on Mar 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Look at the city managers salary + benefits and the increased personel and salaries within his office (somehow left out in this city press release) and it becomes clear why the system is broke.

Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Fiscally imprudent and unwise.

It's time to consider a merger with fire departments in adjoining municipalities; the benefits of doing so are likely significant.

Posted by orr, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 2, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate.
Trim the overlap and reduce the overtime.

Posted by Jim, a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm

The San Jose Fire union just offer the city the following:

(From channel 7 news KGO and the San Jose Mercury News)

- 10% cut in pay and benefits.

- Two tier retirement system for new hires.

- Pay more for health care (did not give numbers in story).

- Reduce the minimum staffing levels.

Maybe Palo Alto Fire Union can offer the same??

Posted by Gary Fletcher, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 2, 2011 at 9:11 pm

I just learned that the city manager has hired new positions for his personal staff in the last year, but yet the city has laid off workers and canceled attrition positions. Many of the key people holding top jobs in Palo Alto have resigned under James, and his personal "secretaries" make double what most police and firefighters make.

I guess the precedent here is hire more personal staff, pay them more, then lay off public safety and other city workers in the name of "the city doesn't have money."

Posted by practice what you preach, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 3, 2011 at 8:51 am

"Seriously, lets start at the top and work to the bottom, not vice versa. "

The firefighters are at the top!

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 3, 2011 at 10:49 am

Jim, a resident of another community said:
> - Two tier retirement system for new hires.

Does this only seem odd and unfair to me. Since the original
deals were cut mostly in the dark without public being informed
or agreement to create these hugely unreasonable pensions and
benefits ... so these folks get to keep their deals, but isn't this
at the expense of future workers.

The future workers are not represented in these neogtiations
because the present sweetheart deals somehow get precedence,
even if they are unfair to the public - but they are decided by
people in the same circumstance. This is kind of like how
some professionals are accused of never disagreeing with each
other ... in other words this is basically political corruption.

Not that the present workers should get to have the same benefits
as the older workers, but there should be some kind of parity
and justice, not just squeeze the new people?

Posted by JR, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 3, 2011 at 10:59 am

The shocking aspect of the list of city employee salaries is how high they are through all categories. Considering the excessive number of employees Palo Alto appears to need to serve our relatively small population, I suggest:

1. A freeze on salaries of ALL city employees making more than $125,000 gross pay effective immediately.

2. Maintain this freeze for at least 2 years or until the city's annual budget can be stabilized at the current level.

3. Union contracts can be renegotiated.

Posted by David Pepperdine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2011 at 11:28 am

Remember how the city unions posted all the flyers around town about "Palo Alto's Dirty Little Secret" to get 100% health benefits to temporary employees?

Remember Judge LaDoris Cordell, who insisted on giving 100% health benefits to part time employees? Wow. What a concept.

It's so easy for the City Council to yield to the unions when the few residents are swamped by the large turnout of union members at key council meetings. After all, it's OPM (Other People's Money) as far as the Council is concerned. The electorate is mostly silent, raising families and going to work. The unions put out yard signs at the next election and help council members seek higher office.

Us citizens need to be more involved.

Nice goin' guys.

Posted by oldbrown, a resident of another community
on Mar 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm

To the posters recommending that minimum staffing be reduced; do you not comprehend what "minimum" means? What is the number below minimum?

Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm

old brown,

i think you know the answer to your question but in case you were serious ... "minimum staffing levels" is a negotiated amount. so every night PA has over 30 ff's sleeping away. negotiate a new minimum level that is not a union negotiated feather bedded #.

hope that helps

Posted by Inside source, a resident of another community
on Mar 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm

I really would like to see how much the City Manager's office salary has increased from 1 and 2 years ago. I'm also shocked to see the "management specialists" who are not allowed to work over 1000 hours a year are earning over 100K for part time jobs!

Posted by ummm, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Mar 4, 2011 at 1:52 am

why do the PA fire dept need paramedics (EMT) , why couldnt this be contracted out to AMR or someone else? WHat a chunk of waste?

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Mar 4, 2011 at 8:14 am

There is an alternative - SJ Mercury News reports
"San Jose officials Thursday announced a tentative deal in which city firefighters would agree to cut their pay and benefits 10 percent for the next two years to reduce the need for layoffs in the thinly staffed department."

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2011 at 11:30 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Overtime is cheaper than more personnel, and sleeping fire fighters are on call, sleeping ONLY when there is no current threat. Would you rather they go home at night?

Posted by Bill, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Everyone can settle down. Our firefighters will be agreeing to cuts shortly. Negotiations are underway and the firefighters will do there share. Important details take time.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2011 at 8:57 am

To Bill,

The time is NOW to make cuts and to end minimum staffing levels.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

So, Fred, do we close your station?

Posted by anciana, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

I like JR's idea of a two-year freeze of City salaries over a certain amount. JR suggested $125,000, which sounds OK to me.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2011 at 7:37 pm

To Walter,

If the station next to my home was the one the city decided to close...then so be it.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 6, 2011 at 10:34 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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