After considering these options, the City Council's Finance Committee followed staff's lead and recommended fire and police budgets based on optimism rather than staffing reductions.
"The best thing to do right now is, frankly, to remain optimistic," committee Chair Greg Scharff said at the meeting. "We have outlined what could happen."
By taking the "optimistic" route, the committee and city management is banking on $4.3 million in concessions from the city's two major public-safety unions, the Palo Alto Professional Fire Fighters, Local 1319, and the Palo Alto Police Officers' Association. Interim Public Safety Director Dennis Burns wrote in a memo to the committee that if these savings aren't achieved, the city would have to eliminate 11 police officers and up to 18 firefighters to balance the 2012 budget of $146 million ($463 million when including the city's enterprise and other funds).
Burns' memo also called for possible "brownouts" of fire stations if the number of firefighters on duty falls to 25 from its current level of 29. A brownout is the temporary closure of a fire station, with its personnel redistributed to other stations.
The proposals in Burns' memo would reduce the service levels in the two departments, particularly in the Police Department, where the city has eliminated 31 positions since 2003. Last year, the council considered making further cuts, including eliminating the five-officer "traffic team" and the school crossing-guard program. The council ultimately backed off these proposals after heavy lobbying from residents who argued that the cuts would put their children in danger.
Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, much like the rest of the committee, said she would prefer labor concessions to service cuts. Shepherd, who serves as one of the council's liaisons to the Palo Alto Unified School District, said she has already encountered angst in the school community about the cuts on the table.
"I don't want to get back to last year, where we had a room full of parents worried about the crossing guard and the traffic team," Shepherd said.
The council, however, faces significant hurdles when it comes to both attaining labor concessions and making staffing cuts. The firefighters' union and city management have been negotiating on a new contract for the past year and remain at an impasse. The two sides are preparing to take their disagreements to binding arbitration in the fall. The firefighters' contract also includes a "minimum staffing" provision requiring at least 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times. The clause makes it impossible for the city to unilaterally cut positions in the Fire Department.
The city is also starting its negotiations with the police union, which will see its contract expire at the end of June.
Though the council hopes to get about $2.3 million from the fire union and $2 million from the police union, these numbers are subject to change. At Tuesday's hearing, the committee repeatedly questioned the staffing level in the Fire Department and wondered whether the city really needs to have so many more firefighters (108) than police officers (91). City Manager James Keene said other cities typically have more officers than firefighters.
"The truth is, if we were ultimately unsuccessful (in negotiations), there's nothing that would tie the council's hands that would say we have to stay with the same methodology," Keene said. "It may be a completely different ratio based on what the impacts of the cuts could be for the community."
In addition to assuming $4.3 million in union concessions, Keene's proposed budget also allocates about $1 million for a new Office of Emergency Services. The office would include a director, two managers and administrative assistants.
The committee unanimously endorsed the creation of a new office, which has long been championed by the city's robust community of emergency-preparedness volunteers.
"I see this as tremendous leverage to resources because there's a huge number of people in the community who have volunteered and who want to be engaged and active," Councilman Greg Schmid said. "What we're doing is making sure they can be active in a helpful, positive way."
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