With his letter to the public, Chuck Bernstein was on the record as opposing his colleagues on the governing board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District on a new four-year contract with firefighters, and he was alone in not voting to approve it on a 4-1 vote Aug. 25. But his letter did provoke a question or two for the district, and a call for his censure.
Mr. Bernstein claims that the contract (formally termed a memorandum of understanding) does not inform constituents of the true costs, that it institutionalizes overtime as regular pay, that it's misleading about the pension plan, and that it will ripple to the battalion and division chiefs and raise their pay as well.
Chuck Bernstein (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)
Board member Peter Carpenter did not deny that assertion, but said it represented a worst-case scenario, and that while the matter had not been addressed in the contract itself, it had been in a subsequent question-and-answer format on the district's website.
"The staff worked very hard on that issue because you did, in fact, raise it and the staff went and looked at it," Mr. Carpenter said. "The text (in the Q and A) is very clear. It says this is a worst-case assumption and we think this actually is going to be less expensive than that."
A worst-case scenario of the contract's costs to the district, according to Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman and board member Rex Ianson, would include no firefighters retiring over the contract's term, all employees opting into the district's medical plan, all employees being reimbursed for their educational expenses, all receiving $150 a month for being bilingual, and all earning a 3 percent bonus for having bachelor's degrees. None of that is going to happen, they said.
Amid praise by board members to the contract's negotiators, Mr. Bernstein was alone in his criticism. "I wish I could join the love fest," he said. "I think we're going to spend the decade regretting (approving) it."
Payroll could rise to 70 percent of the budget, he said. "It risks not being sustainable anymore," he said. "I'm sorry I haven't been more persuasive and more effective. ... I think this is not the right answer. I think it is a mistake."
The raises amount to 2 percent a year when dated from 2007, Mr. Ianson said. Firefighters continued working at a high performance level despite not having a contract, he added. "I think that what's in the contract is reasonable," he said.
The firefighters of Local 2400 of the San Mateo County Firefighters have been working without a contract since 2007.
"Were trying to recognize the professionals we have for the skills they have" so as to keep them employed in the Menlo Park district, Mr. Carpenter said. In negotiating, the district had to comply with the law and convince the union to accept it, he said, adding, "We met someplace in the middle."
"This was not a rushed process. Everyone has a piece of this contract," said board President Virginia Chang Kiraly. "This is not a love fest."
After the board members approved the contract, they voted again, this time unanimously, to discuss in September the idea of censuring Mr. Bernstein.
Mr. Carpenter requested the discussion, alleging that Mr. Bernstein violated the board's policies and procedures governing decorum and a member's conduct and responsibilities.
Mr. Bernstein's letter included this sentence: "Notwithstanding my pride in the quality of service we offer, I will vote against the proposed contract. I believe it represents a terrible deal for residents and taxpayers."
Section 5.8 of the board's policies and procedures says that members "shall observe" a code of conduct, which includes this directive: "A Fire District Board Member should strive to: ... 1) Refuse to make commitments on any matter which should come before the Board as a whole."
Mr. Bernstein said he would welcome "a discussion of what's permitted and what's not permitted."
Under the contract's terms, firefighters' pay will rise by 9 percent the first year and 3 percent annually for three years which, with the annual increases, works out to 19 percent, with total compensation to cost the district around $9.8 million, Mr. Schapelhouman has said.
Under the worst-case scenario of a 41 percent increase described by Mr. Bernstein, total compensation costs would be about $14 million, the district says.
In 2014, the district paid its firefighters $1.5 million in penalties after a determination by the state Public Employee Relations Board that the district had engaged in piecemeal bargaining.
Under the new deal, firefighters would pay 12 percent of pension costs, retroactive to 2014-15, up from the 9 percent they are paying now. This will save the district around $1.2 million over four years, the chief said. Firefighters would also pay 10 percent of the costs for health care coverage.
The contract includes a stipend for firefighters choosing to live within 60 miles of the district, starting at $200 a month and rising to $300 by the end of the contract.