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  Community Splits Over Firefighter Layoffs - Agenda Block Remains
February 1, 2004
 

Before the E-FORUM "Firefighters Back to Work" piece on January 28, most of my mail, faxes and email were running almost totally in support of the firefighters. I have received dozens of form letters, for example,  over the last few weeks signed by Richmond residents as follows;

 

Dear City Council Member;

As a concerned citizen of the City of Richmond, I would like to express my displeasure and outrage at your decision to put my safety at risk. Cutting public safety personnel and closing fire station in a city this size, with its history, will result in catastrophes that could have been avoided otherwise. There are other choices that can be made before cutting such a vital service to our community. Please reconsider your decision and re-hire the 18 firefighters. All of the City's fire stations need to be open and staffed.

One of the more vocal public safety advocates writes:

I applaud your initiative to return the Fire Department to functional level. But February 6 is a long way away when we don't have adequate fire protection! t the same time, I am extremely disappointed at your demonizing of the Fire Fighters Union, without them having a fair opportunity to answer your claims.  It just makes some people mad at those we depend on to save our lives!

I am shocked that the City refuses to declare a State of Emergency!!!    It is negligent to ignore the fire chief and fire fighters soundings of alarm!

I wish I was at the City Council last night.  Obviously it was very shocking to see the effects of fire on a human being.  This is why I am so afraid of fire, and why keep trying to sound the alarm.    It is irrelevant when the woman was in a fire. Usually those effects are kept out of view.  I'm sorry that it takes front-on exposure to the real effects of fire to make politicians face reality.  The woman who was burned was being heroic to save others in the community from a similar fate!.   The  City Council is an intimidating place, I too felt very uncomfortable to speak before the city council - because I am a polio survivor, and have a somewhat paralyzed throat, and have more difficulty speaking in intimidating situations.  But I did it to stand up in need for our Fire Department and our volunteer safety training program.   The Fire Department have been the only ones giving our REACT group any knowledge to save ourselves. 

 As far as the City of Richmond, here's no effort to take up the slack for the Fire Department cuts, that's what's outrageous!   The other outrageous act is pitting city services against each other!  No community can pay for itself in isolation from the forces that are taking our TAXES out of the community!!  Hold the State and Federal governments accountable for cutting the throat of American communities.  Obviously the cuts last year made City government nonfunctional.  State & Federal governments are not through hemorrhaging our communities, and will bleed this turnip dry if we don't go after outside funding and join other communities in legal injunctions against this theft of local funds.

Since January 28the sentiments of constituents has almost reversed. Examples follow:

  • Tom, I think there is a serious disconnect between the firefighters and their union leadership.  At several City Council meetings, individual firefighters have said that they were willing to negotiate, Jim Russey being just one of them.  But they seem unaware, or maybe just disingenuous in their assertions about negotiating, that their union refuses to place anything meaningful on the table.  The firefighters received an extremely generous benefits package at a time when the City was flush.  They were perfectly happy to share in the bounty.  But they are totally unwilling to share any pain now that times are tough.  Yes, they provide a valuable service, probably one of the most critical in the City, but the City should not bow down to them when they are so unmoving in their bargaining.  They have room to move; the City does not.  So far the City has held fast to its promise to make cuts when there is no other alternative.  Don't gut the other City services just to feed the firefighters.  The firefighters have plenty to eat already.  I don't know if anyone else has dared to broach the subject of the fortuitousness of the recent Point Richmond fire.  The circumstances surrounding that event are very troubling:  1) the building was conveniently vacant; 2) the next closest fire station had an alarm malfunction; 3) the fire is of suspicious origin; 4) the building was immediately torn down and hauled away.  How can an arson investigation be done when the evidence is taken away?  Who is responsible for conducting such an investigation?  Is it the Fire Department?  Hmmmm, what's going on here...? 

     

  •  The firefighters are holding us hostage and if you succeed in bringing them back, they win.  Again. As they always have. It is a horrible and scary situation.  Apparently the City told them this would happen and they called the City's bluff.  I think we cannot let them win. They have to negotiate and they have to take a hit.  (For what it's worth, Chief Robinson told me that many of the firefighters were willing but that the union said no.)

     

  • ...since I was so steamed at the firefighters, I went directly to the Pt. Richmond fire station and told four of five of them that it was appalling that a poor disfigured woman was paraded in front of the council and those in attendance in a n attempt to get sympathy for their demand to hire back the 28 fire fighters. I was very vocal and was told that the woman wanted to come to the meeting. I still stated that it was in poor taste and that I believe she was a pawn of the union. I told them to negotiate and their representative, Richard Kalayjian, a very well spoken gentleman, stated they were trying to do so but the city wouldn't meet with them. I also stated that their retirement at fifty with 25 years experience was outrageous and no other group of workers had such a good deal. Another pleasant fire fighter mentioned that he came aboard at 29 so he couldn't retire that early. So what, I stated and told him all of the people I know all had limited or no pensions at all and couldn't retire prior to sixty. I also mentioned that the city administrators were over paid and certainly have contributed to the financial crisis the city faces. Along the way I also mentioned that I found it outrageous for a police captain to have financial compensation of over $230,000 last year. Richard stated that was because the individual retired and his overtime, vacation time, and other factors allowed him to out with that paycheck. Oh, I also asked them about the cocktail hour that supposedly has taken place for on duty fire fighters in SF. I mentioned that is was not good pr for all fire fighters. Hell, Tom, I hope someone straightens this out and get some negotiating done. I still don't want the 18 rehired unless they give something to the city. I mentioned the police did gave up something but was told that their contract had expired, so what? That's my take and they were friendly so what is the city doing in negotiations?

     

  • Is there an email address for the firefighters and/or their union that you can publish so the public can have a say in this matter.  I, for one, think the firefighters need to get real and start sharing in the cost of at least their healthcare the way the "rest of the world" has to!  

     

  • It seems to me that bringing 18 people back to work who were laid off for fiscal reasons is irresponsible and sends the union a weird message.

     

  • ... on this issue I must respectfully disagree with your recommendation regarding the firefighters.  This is exactly what the firefighters' union has been so cleverly attempting to influence the public through fear and intimidation tactics.  I also am concerned with your continual lament that other city officials or council members are the roadblock in getting things done.  These are leadership issues, and you are one of the city leaders.  I don't need to preach to you that effective leadership requires the ability to influence others. Why can't the council or individual council members establish expectations for the City Manager and hold him accountable for results (e.g., expediting negotiations with unions).  The unions haven't been able to even offer the slightest concession, such as the historically abusive overtime scam that exists as an unwritten code among firefighters (i.e., systematic use of sick leave so others can get overtime).  In closing, I want full fire coverage like any other citizen, but am willing to support the cutbacks until some concessions are made by the union.  Don't back down like past councils to the tactics of the firefighter's union....effective leaders stand tall in the face of adversity.

     

  • I have to disagree with your proposal to bring back the 18 firefighters. The City of Richmond is a business and the citizens are the shareholders.  We need to treat our business just as we would any other enterprise and if we donít have the money to pay for services then we cannot proceed.  The bottom line is that we canít spend what we do not have.  One of the many problems we face in this country today is the failure of our local, state and federal governments to live within their means.  Itís bad enough that citizens are living off of their credit cards but when their own governments do it it sends a bed message that itís an acceptable practice.  Borrowing money doesnít come without a price and repaying that additional cost is taking away from the citizens valuable resources that could be used elsewhere for vital services. Having managed projects with budgets significantly higher than Richmondís annual budget, I know that with proper management techniques previously unconsidered ideas can be implemented.  We need leadership at the highest levels of city management to actually lead and we need elected officials that can rise and take a stand. As Iíve written before, we need a chain of command and that chain must be followed and adhered to.  The Council sets policy and the City Manager enacts that policy.  If any city employee (from the City Manager down to the first day intern) does not want to follow the directives of their superiors then that employee has the choice of quitting his position or being fired. If Local 188 wants to se those 18 firefighters rehired then they need to sit down and try to come up with ways to make that happen.  One way that quickly comes to my own mind is to outlaw scheduled overtime.  From reading of the overtime worked by the cityís firefighters (which is always a sure sign of poor management), I would better that a better allocation of the cityís resources could eliminate these high priced overtime workers with some or even all of these 18 unemployed firefighters. Perhaps itís my suspicious nature but when I saw in the news weekend before last that there was a fire close by the closed fire station in Point Richmond, my first reaction was to wonder where each and every member of Local 188 (and Darrell Reese) was when the fire was set.  It was simply too opportunistic and coincidental.  Especially for Richmond. Unless we have the money first, we should not even consider rehiring employees.  If you want to bring this back before the Council, it should be done as an exercise in forcing individual Council members to take a public stand.

     

  • ... don't cave in, get some support from the media since they have criticized the sweetheart deal the safety officers have received in the past and I'm sure will mentioned the fact that the fire fighters union is unwilling to negotiate any of its perks. I won't ever back this type of tactics used by their union and the council shouldn't either.

     

  • In light of the budget deficits, it would not be in the public's best interest to bring back the 18 laid off firefighters.  Apparently there are issues with that particular fire department anyway.  Let it go, let the firefighters and union save themselves.  In the meantime, the public saves some money.

     

  • ... absolutely no to the reinstatement of the 18 firefighters unless they negotiate either a pay cut of pay part of their benefits. I can't believe that you, Tom, can be pressured by the firefighters for you must be aware that once they win this battle, you and the council will never have any future say in what they demand and receive. Get serious, every other department took a huge hit, and they receive a free pass, that's outrageous. I agree with Corky, that all must give a little. Please list the salaries that the firefighters receive and the actual time that they have to work and not sit around the fire station, and I believe that the public will put some pressure on them to negotiate. Also put into a news brief the salaries that the New York firefighters receive and their benefits in comparison the Richmond's compensation. Thanks.

     

  • ... you are absolutely correct, but this sort of diatribe is almost guaranteed to make your proposal fail and alienate even further City staff.  Also, hiring back the 18 firefighters only rewards the union for its intransigence.

     

  • ... it was a hard decision to lay them off. That has occurred. Donít bring them back now until they recognized they need to contribute to their benefit package.

I remain convinced that resolution of this problem requires a full and frank discussion in open session of the City Council, and it requires a totally new approach to negotiations with the union. Unfortunately, the "Agenda Junta" has blocked such a discussion from occurring on a public agenda where action can be taken.

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