It's been seven years since firefighters working for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District have worked under a contract. If district governing board member Chuck Bernstein were to have his way, they will be working without a contract into the fall.
Mr. Bernstein was alone in his dissent among his four colleagues when the board voted 4-1 in July to post the new contract for public comment. The contract with the San Mateo County Firefighters Local 2400 represents years of "protracted and contentious negotiations," Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has said.
Mr. Bernstein, in an Aug. 3 letter to fire district residents, makes several arguments about why he plans to vote no when the contract comes before the board for approval on Aug. 25. After expressing his pride in the district's performance, Mr. Bernstein said he believes the contract "represents a terrible deal for residents and taxpayers."
Among his assertions: the money used to boost firefighters' pay would be better spent on equipment and facilities; increases in total compensation exceed the consumer price index by 60 percent; firefighters are too well paid given the typical firefighter's education; and an oversupply of applicants for firefighting jobs does not justify the increases.
The board has scheduled a vote for Tuesday, Aug. 25. Board meetings start at 7 p.m. at 300 Middlefield Road in Menlo Park.
The contract requires the district to make a one-time payment to firefighters a total of $1.5 million as a result of the district's having engaged in unlawful piecemeal bargaining and acting unilaterally, according to rulings by the state Public Employment Relations Board.
In general, firefighters' average base salaries would rise by 18 percent over three years. They would pay an additional 3 percent of their pension costs, and 10 percent of health care costs. They would also receive a stipend for living within 60 miles of the main fire station. The contract would cost the district about $9.8 million over four years.
Fire district responds
Chief Schapelhouman responded to several of Mr. Bernstein's points. The district was not expecting the letter, he said, so responses to specific assertions about compensation, including the cost-of-living issue, would have to wait for an analysis by Municipal Resource Group LLC, the district's Danville-based consultant.
In his letter, Mr. Bernstein put firefighter total compensation increases in the context of larger issues, such as the district's need to upgrade facilities, buy new equipment to deal with taller buildings, and "find either new routes or new equipment that can bypass our increasingly congested roads."
"Though the District is well endowed with tax revenues, it will need to spend a great deal over the next 20 years to maintain its current response rates," he said. "Frustration with excessive compensation and benefits will rightfully discourage residents from approving bond issues and other means of financing these needs when they could have been obtained using existing resources that taxpayers feel have been squandered."
"I don't agree with that statement," Chief Schapelhouman said. The district can handle facility upgrades of $7 million to $10 million each with existing resources, he said. The current budget projects a $17.3 million balance in the capital improvement fund, a balance that grows by at least $2.5 million a year, he said.
The district's one ladder truck now has a crew of three, but the new contract would raise that to four. Mr. Bernstein argues that ladder trucks never deploy alone, so additional firefighters are always available, and that the district has a higher priority: buying and staffing a second and possibly a third ladder truck in response to increased traffic congestion.
"Firefighters see (a fourth crew member) as a safety issue, and I can't disagree," the chief said. Ladder truck crews tend to be more experienced, and have "high-intensity, high-risk" jobs, often involving complex rescues using technical equipment, he said. A fourth crew member has been a standing request for seven years, he said.
The district, Mr. Bernstein said, augments a firefighter's $100,000 to $200,000 annual salary when the firefighter has a college degree, but degrees are uncommon. Residents such as teachers and child care workers have more degrees but are paid much less. "It is not fair or reasonable to tax our residents making less money in fields requiring more education and training to pay for this excess," he said.
Those non-firefighting occupations "are valuable positions, but are these people being placed in harm's way?" Chief Schapelhouman asked. "It's very difficult, dirty, hard work. ... We put ourselves between the emergency and the public. Public safety is a difficult job."
Firefighters in situations involving rescues can contract diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis C, he said. Firefighting suits gain weight as they absorb toxins from fires. "We may know all that," he said, "but does that mean that we don't go in?"
Fire district administrative employees receive a stipend for living within 30 miles of the district, but the new contract with firefighters expands that distance to 60 miles. "In a severe emergency, where transportation was disrupted, it would help little to have firefighters stranded in Petaluma, Stockton, and Salinas," Mr. Bernstein said.
This provision is about less-than-major emergencies, the chief said, and "will help us refill positions more quickly." He said he knows of California firefighters who live outside the state and even outside the country. A firefighter is paid overtime for every hour of travel back to the station, he said.
As for an oversupply of job applicants, the chief said that more than half don't show up for the evaluations, and many are unfamiliar with the qualifications. Applicants are winnowed to those who indicate a strong interest in the district.
==I Go to menlofire.org for details on the new contract.==