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  City Staff Hunkers While Council Twists in the Wind
January 13, 2004

A typical letter pops up in my email this morning;


“I understand that these are lean times.  And while I cannot claim to understand your budget constraints, I do not understand how we balance the budget by drastically reducing our firefighter staff.  Please reconsider this measure.  I think the implications of enhanced disasters are obvious. In our city, vulnerable to earthquake and refinery fire and all the mundane problems, it is outrageous to be closing fire stations.  Thank you for your consideration.” 


Richmond residents are rightly concerned about the Fire Department layoffs that, in the fire chief’s own words, left the City vulnerable and compromised. Residents expect the City Council to show leadership and resolve the perceived crisis.


After testifying before the City Council last week, Fire Chief Joe Robinson is back on disability leave and is expected to retire within the month. As of yesterday, no one really knew who is in charge of the Fire Department.


Well, what do we do? Perhaps the answer seems simple. The City Council orders the city manager to rehire the firefighters. Staff tells us, however, that it will cost $1.8 million that we don’t have. We have to find $1.8 million from somewhere. There aren’t many places to get it, but parks, recreation and libraries are one of the few sources. Making that transfer would probably result in closures of all branch libraries, further reduction in main library services and closure of all community centers.


Is that what the people of Richmond want? Some don’t hesitate. Public safety is our highest priority, they say -- whatever it takes.


But a City Council is supposed to make rational decisions, based on facts. There are two ways to find $1.8 million, as well as endless combinations. It seems clear that the current budget crisis is largely a result of out of control pension costs paid 100% by the City. Shouldn’t the firefighters contribute something to the solution? Unfortunately, staff has provided the City Council no information about comparable compensation and benefits for firefighters, police and other employees for at least a year. We have no idea whether our firefighters are, as some say, the third highest paid in the United States or grossly underpaid. I did discover recently, however, that entry level firefighters in San Francisco are paid less than Richmond firefighters.


When the latest pension plan enhancement were adopted in late 2002, Darrell Reese, long time Local 188 firefighter labor leader and continuing political consultant to both Local 188 and the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA) testified in front of the City Council:


“ … there’s several very important ways that the City can protect itself long term and of course the best way to do that is…every two or three years, our contracts are opened and I think at that point the City has to analyze it’s financial situation and you’re doing that already.  You have to do that every contract time.  We live from contract to contract because of that, you folks always at the end of the day are in a position to say, wait a minute, things have gone out of control, sorry folks, sorry employees, you guys are going to have to take a cut, we have no choice, we have no money so you’re going to go bankrupt or whatever the situation may be.


The current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with our firefighters union (Local 188) has expired and is supposedly being renegotiated. Staff has provided the City Council no information about the supposedly ongoing negotiations. We have no idea what either the City’s representatives or the union have proposed.


The firefighters say there is money available, and they have publicly made various proposals to find it. We have had no response by staff to these proposals. In fact, the last we heard from staff, they don’t know how much money the City has, and their latest calculations could be off by as much as $5 million to $ 10 million. Staff’s level of confidence, interestingly, has declined dramatically since December of 2002 when they told the City Council we could afford all the enhanced pension plan benefits and still show a $4.5 surplus this year.


I have zero confidence in the Finance Department to provide reliable accounting information. So do most City employees. I recently found out that many City departments have their own secret departmental accounting systems because they also have no confidence in the Finance Department. Imagine the waste that this unnecessary redundancy causes.


The problem is that Richmond has become a staff controlled city rather than a council controlled city. The City Council has been provided virtually no reliable information on which to base critical decisions about how to resolve the crisis. I have to admit that I simply do not know what to do because our staff has clammed up and provided nothing on which we can base a rational decision.


A rational decision on the fire department staffing requires information and facts, neither of which has been provided to the City Council. I have requested that the City retain an outside expert labor negotiator experienced in Bay Area public safety union contracts to take over from our in-house team, in whom I have also lost all confidence. I also believe that one or more City Council members should be present in all labor negotiations in order to report back to the council what has transpired and to verify accounts by both staff and bargaining units – which typically vary radically. I have also requested that the City retain outside experts in public safety to provide unbiased evaluations of our public safety capabilities and an outside expert to provide a real evaluation of our current budget situation.


And finally, I ask my colleagues on the City Council to take back this city from City staff and run it like the leaders we are supposed to be.


For additional background information on the history of the current crisis, I commend to you the two E-FORUMS at City Faces Daunting Economic Future by Funding New Retirement Plans, December 15, 2002, City Adopts "Hail Mary" Budget - Asks Unions For 5% "Give-Back", July 09, 2003.