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Big divide over pay, benefits for firefighters

Original post made on Jul 14, 2009

Menlo Park firefighters have been working for over a year without a contract, and a new one seems nowhere in sight as negotiations stall between the district and the union in differences over wages and benefits.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, July 13, 2009, 11:45 PM

Comments (49)

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Posted by Dave Bragg
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jul 14, 2009 at 3:30 pm

There is two sides to every story. Please view the firefighters website at if you would like to hear the other side of the story.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 14, 2009 at 3:56 pm

As Dave Bragg states above, there are two sides to every story. Unfortunately, the union web site that he points you to has only one page on the issue of these protracted negotiations and that is entitled 'morale'. That page is essentially a witch hunt directed at one member of the District's Management Team and never discloses the union's unrelenting demand for double digit wage increases or their unwillingness to negotiate in good faith or their unwilligness to accept the District's twice made offer of mediation. The union also provided the Almanac with only a portion of its unfair labor charge and omitted all of the attachments. The union has also refused to talk with the Almanac reporter writing this story - so if there is a 'missing side to the story' it is because the union has refused to tell its side of the story. Personally, I think the union has declined to be interviewed because their side of the story is indefensible.
For an example of responsible union leadership here is what the labor leader for another nearby firefighter's local has said '"Firefighters understand the current financial crisis we are in and we believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of San Mateo to defer our pay increase rather than compromise staffing which would be detrimental to the safety of the citizens we are sworn to protect."

Matt Turturici, President, San Mateo Firefighters Association

on the occasion of agreeing to a wage freeze and pay increase deferal.
It is sad that our union lacks that wisdom and caliber of leadership.

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Posted by tired of the greed
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 14, 2009 at 4:18 pm

If the union maintains its position, the board (if possible) should start advertising for new individuals outside the union to fill the positions. Their skills are easy to replace.

Unfortunately the fire fighters have benefits that are off the charts compared with the private sector and it is time for an adjustment. No just a raise freeze.

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Posted by Ellen
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 14, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Note to firefighters. An 11% increase? What universe are you living in?

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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 14, 2009 at 7:32 pm

When most people are having their wages frozen or are taking pay cuts, it's disappointing to see that the fire fighters feel they are entitled to a raise. It’s also disappointing to see that they tie morale to pay raises – I’m only happy when I get a raise. How about I am happy and satisfied that I have a good job that pays and that I get to serve the residents?
Take a look around guys and do a reality check; if your job is that bad there’s always someone else who would be willing to work and be happy that they have a job.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 14, 2009 at 10:01 pm

From my experience, we have an outstanding fire department with exceptional firefighters, facilities, equipment, and training. Getting a job in our district is so competitive that I have heard stories of individuals dropping out of college or quitting jobs elsewhere to take a rare opening in our department. The pay and benefits cannot be that bad if jobs here remain so competitive.

I think that this is a case of the local 2400 not wanting a precedent of less than double digit increases being set here that could then be cited by other cities in their efforts to reign in wage growth.

I think that it is time for our local firefighters to stand up to their union and do what is right for the community. At a time when most people (including public workers) are just trying to avoid layoffs, it is inconceivable that they could expect a big wage increase.

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Posted by Kathy
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jul 14, 2009 at 10:16 pm

I agree with Ellen. Are they living in the same 2009 I am?

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Posted by callie
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 15, 2009 at 11:58 am

Do you know that there are a minimum of 100 qualified fire-fighter applications for every opening in Menlo Park?

How can you justify the current wages, current benefits, current retirement age, current pension, and current post-retirement health care benefits that fire-fighters recieve with that many (and ususally more) qualified job applicants?

Many communities in San Mateo County are actually reversing the situation for new hires, which the Elected Board can do. The Board can also resist any increases for existing fire fighters in any category mentioned above. Let the fire fighters quit.


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Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 15, 2009 at 12:45 pm

The point is not whether the firefighters deserve good pay and benefits, but what is appropriate. The taxpayers who fund their pay and benefits lost equivalent pay and benefits long ago, and in many cases never enjoyed anything close to the level of retirement pay and benefits. Many of us are struggling to pay the mortgage and feed our families. The market doesn't warrant premium pay just to get positions filled with qualified employees, it seems. How is it fair to ask taxpayers to fund extravagant retirement benefits? We just can't afford to give everyone else what they think they deserve. Please negotiate hard. Now is the time.

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Posted by No Parades
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jul 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm

The new public worker class may or may not sink us, but being arm twisted for fat pay and benefits is an offense to all who work for a living without being "represented" by the firefighters union. I put in 50 hours a week for most of my years in construction - a decent industry with more risk than firefighting - and none of that was sleeping or playing volleyball. Ellen and Kathy, you called it.

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Posted by One more reality check
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jul 15, 2009 at 6:29 pm

For those who feel that firefighters retirement benefits pay too much, please realize this. Firefighters pay 10% of every single pay check for thier 30 year career directly to pers. Have you deducted this percentage from your wages for your entire professional career? I can only wish that I had been soo dilligent with my retirement planning.

People, please, educate yourself on these topics prior to voicing your opinion. Our firefighters deserve at least that.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 15, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Who's getting raises these days? And since the Governor and Legislature can't get their act together, they could come "borrow" local money. Where's the money to pay for all of it going to come from? The firefighters should step up to the plate and do their part during these tough economic times and be leaders. Right now they just look selfish and greedy. They make good money already. Who said they have to make above the average?

Be glad you have a decent job; some of us are just getting by.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 15, 2009 at 8:30 pm

One more reality check stated:
"People, please, educate yourself on these topics prior to voicing your opinion"- good advice which he/she should also follow.

The facts are that firefighters actually make a small contribution to their CalPers retirement while the District is currently paying about 39% over and above each firefighter's pay to CalPers. The difference is that the firefighter's contribution is fixed. The Fire District's contribution can and does increase whenever it is necessary to cover the actual cost of giving firefighters the privilege of retiring at age 50 with 3% of their final salary for every year that they have worked. Thus a firefighter who has worked for 30 years can retire at age 50 with 90% of their last year's salary and cost of living adjustments thereafter. A number of firefighters also then claim disability and then get much of this 90% tax free. For firefighters on disability retirement their post retirement after tax income may actually be greater than what they were getting while working.

Since the firefighters are promised a defined benefit retirement that is totally unrelated to their fixed personal contributions the Fire District is on the hook for the difference. CalPers has already warned us that the 39% rate will go up significantly because of the poor results of CalPers's investments in the current financial markets. The Fire District could soon be paying well in excess of 40% of the firefighters pay to keep the firefighters retirement funded.

I do not believe that such a rich retirement program is sustainable and have urged that the Fire Board, of which I am a member, to negotiate for a two tier retirement policy so that new hires will be either moved to a defined contribution retirement program or, at least, to a 2.5% at 55 defined benefit program.

Yes, know the fact before you offer an opinion.

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Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jul 15, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Just another disgraceful public sector union and its symbiotic politicians on the take. The taxpaying citizenry takes it in the shorts as usual.

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Posted by John
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 16, 2009 at 7:40 am

At Mr. Bragg’s suggestion I read the article on the MPFFA’s website. The author’s entire premise seems to center around the union’s disdain for one staff member. Are you telling men that 100 men base their work satisfaction, attitude, behavior, involvement, daily interaction, morale and the like on this one individual? I have a very difficult time believing this. I also wonder if all the firefighters, just a few, or simply the author share this sentiment.

Regardless, those who have been involved in the work environment for many years know that not every one will be on our side or side with what we want or we think we are entitled to. One can either choose to work with situations and people as best as possible or whine and complain much like the tone of the union’s article. I had thought that our fire fighters were more professional than how this article portrays them.

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Posted by Stop the firefighter love
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jul 16, 2009 at 7:56 am

I agree with most of the commenters here. And it is a shame that the story in the Almanac left out the key figures here, which are the number of employees and the average salary/benefits. I don't feel qualified to comment on if we need the 100 firefighting personnel plus 10 support staff in 08-09 (dropped to 95 plus 9 in '09-10 proposal). But the salaries, overtime and stipend are way out of wack with norms for the rest of the local working population. So, in the proposed budget, not what the union wants, the planned expenditures for salary, overtime and stipend is $13.8million or $133K per firefighter. Is that the average salary at your company? Over at Web Link you can see the W2 wages of the employees. I'm not sure if W-2 wages exclude the amount paid to CALPERS or not, but see all the people making $120K or more.

And then throw on the very generous benefits where firefighters retire with 50-90% of their salary for the rest of their lives. If you made $150K in one year and have 90% benefits because of service, then you make $135K per year in retirement for the rest of your life. In the private sector, if you stuff $13K each year for 30 years into your 401K and it earns 5% return, then you've got under $900K at the end. If you spent the $135K per year as the firefighter can do, then your savings are gone in under 7 years, while the firefighter continues to earn pension benefits.

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Posted by MP Mom
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2009 at 9:39 am

I support our firefighters. They are involved in charity work – when they stand on the corner and collect money in their boots and the toy collection at Christmas. They helped out during hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks. They are great with our kids during tours of the fire stations and pancake breakfasts. They help people out on medical calls and accidents.

Unfortunately, I can’t support them when they ask for such a big raise when the rest of us are making compromises and concessions. In this case I don’t support them.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 16, 2009 at 10:22 am

Facts are very useful in a discussion like this one.

Upon further research this morning, I have determined that the firefighters pay 9% of their wages as their CalPers contribution - while the Fire District currently pays 39% and will probably soon pay well over 40%. I have never heard of a private sector employer who matched employee contributions on a 4:1 basis nor of a private sector employer who guaranteed to make up any short fall for a defined benefit retirement.

If a firefighter is able to claim disability then up to 50% of their retirement pay becomes tax free.

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Posted by Be Nice
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 16, 2009 at 11:13 am

I want to start by saying that the tone of this article and the tone of these blogs are very rude and condescending. Let's have some respect people and act like adults here.

I think the firefighters are getting a negative light shed upon them in this article.

Let's remember- firefighters do not have a normal 8-5 job. The are gone from their wives, husbands and children 3 out of the 7 nights a week, and even more if they get overtime. That is a lot of time away from their loved ones. And why do they sacrifice that time away, well, to make sure YOUR families and loved ones are safe.

When your house is on fire and you are running out of the building, the firefighters are running in, risking their lives. Let me repeat that so the point is clear- every hour that a firefighter is at work they are putting their own human life on the line- to me- that is priceless.

Also, Firefighters are medically trained. A good portion of them are paramedics. I think you would be surprised about how much training and knowledge a Firefighter has in the medical arena. Again- to me that is priceless. Saving human lives.

Firefighters do not get paid that much considering the above. And the article that came out with their salaries listed their total amount INCLUDING overtime. Overtime is overtime- it is time above and beyond the normal work hours. It is more time away from family and friends and home. The Menlo Park Fire Department also does a lot of volunteer work.

Firefighters don't just have stressful jobs, they have shorter lives. This is a fact. This is HUGE (and very sad).

All the encounters I have had with the Menlo Park Fire Department have been positive.

And whoever this Mr. Carpenter guy is- not to be rude, but it sounds like the problem lies with you!

Just my 2 cents. I don't really want mean comments back- I just wanted a few points to be mentioned. Take them or leave them.

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Posted by not sympathetic
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jul 16, 2009 at 12:37 pm

If the firefighters' best arguments are presented on the page cited by Dave Bragg, I am not impressed. What a long-winded, inarticulate tirade against one employee who appears to be in a staff rather than a line position! It smacks of misogyny and certainly doesn't make me feel that these people deserve ridiculous raises.

I'm glad to hear that some people have had positive encounters with the firefighters. My limited experience hasn't been positive. The time that a neighbor's toddler was injured and appeared to need immediate care, the paramedics did not arrive for 15 minutes, though we live 1/2 mile from the main station. And when a house in the neighborhood had a fire, we were alarmed by the firefighters'unprofessional behavior.

I'm kind of surprised to hear that they receive 100 applications for every available position. What criteria do they use to select these people? Most of us would love to be able to retire at age 50 and receive almost our full salary, but instead we are scraping by, no retirement except SS (I expect to be working until I keel over), lousy healthcare, and jobs that require us to be busy at all times rather than allow us sit around waiting for something to happen.

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Posted by Back and Forth
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 16, 2009 at 2:03 pm

I don't think the whole department should be judged on the page link posted by Dave Bragg. There are a lot of different personalities in one fire department so let's not judge them all. I just read the whole page and I can see why the Menlo Park Fire fighters are upset; and I am sure that is just the tip of the ice berg.

I also don't think this is the best forum to present peoples arguments. No of us know all the sides to all the stories and the article that is fueling this discussion is obviously one sided which sets the wrong tone for this blog.

But I will still chime in that I have had only very positive experiences with the Menlo Park Fire Department. I agree with the "Be Nice" post. Let's all stop and think about the sacrifices the fire fighters are making. And to comment on the retirement comment, I also looked it up and found that most fire fighters only live 5-7 years after retirement. So "Mr Not Sympathetic"- you will live a lot longer.

I'm sure many more people can add onto this blog with both positive and negative experiences- but I don't think that is the point.

I honestly don't think fire fighters get paid enough. I'm pretty sure a huge % of the districts residents get paid way more then the majority of the Menlo Park Fire Department.

I really hope for all parties involved that this issues gets settled soon. It sounds as if too may people are getting hurt and upset over this. With times like these we all need to focus on being happy.

It sound like this issues needs fresh members to represent both parties.

Have a good day!

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Posted by Wishing for information
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm

I wish the Almanac could present some of the facts here. The arguments presented here for firefighters are: 1) they put 10% away, 2) risk their life, 3) time away from family, 4) are highly respected and do a great job. Item 1- many employees put 10% away in 401K (as one reader said) and 3% for social security. I will see a small proportion of what I put in relative to other earners. We are not guaranteed though to receive that back and we can't collect until after 60 or 65. Also bear in mind that in my household, we put in about $250K combined for our education and did not start earning until our mid twenties and will not retire until our mid 60's.

Item 2) I get this point and agree this is why they should be paid more than a typical public employee. However, many other workers risk their life, including pilots, construction workers, manufacturer workers, etc. Item 3: many workers travel for business and are away from family for days/weeks. Armed forces spend months away, risk their life, but don't get this kind of benefit. Item 4: agree as well, but I also respect doctors, teachers, laborers, etc. I respect anyone who commits to what they do, do a good job, and respect others. These arguments simply do not align with comparisons to other professions. The guaranteed pension just seems absurd and there has to be a way to account for those who go on and take another job (still able to work). If pensions were sustainable then everyone would get it. There has to be some reasonable way to give them a 20 or 30% guarantee plus some additional based on performance of the fund. Do fireman also get social security? Are pensions taxed? I would love for someone to do an article comparing fireman, civil servant, average worker at a small business, fortune 500, teacher, doctor, and executive. Do the comparison of what people invested in their career, hours, vacation, money put into social security, 401K, pension, etc.

-wishing for more information

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Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Jul 16, 2009 at 2:41 pm

To Back and Forth: I so agree with your last comment...."this issue needs fresh members to represent both parties". I can't imagine the how the lead union representative could tolerate having to sit across from Mr. Carpenter after the personal attack Peter saw fit to levy (even if he "was only speaking for himself"). And, obviously, anyone would have difficulty negotiating in good faith with someone whom they mistrust as much as Mr. Carpenter seems to mistrust the head union rep. Add to that the fact that Mr. Carpenter has been a member of the District Board for quite awhile and so therefore I think it can be assumed was party to the current union contract--part of the problem. It sounds to me like the Chief is taking exactly the right leadership position (gutsy) in all of this in calling for the public meeting, pressing the issue for the district board to impose a salary structure, and clearing the way for the union to then appeal that structure, thus forcing this into a mediation by "fresh eyes".

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 16, 2009 at 2:44 pm

More facts.
'Do fireman also get social security?' MPFPD firefighters do not participate in the Social security pension sysytem.

'Are pensions taxed?' Firefighters' pensions are taxed except if an individual firefighter is deemed disabled and then up to 50% of that person's pension is not taxed.

Community wage comparison - the American Community Survey has survey data for EPA and MP about RESIDENTS not jobs in the city. For residents the median earnings (not average wage)
in 2007 was $58,457 for MP and $24,783 for EPA.

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Posted by Dr. Feelgood
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 16, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Dear Mr. Carpenter,
[Portion removed] I read your initial article in the Almanac and have since read all of your posts. And I have done a little research of my own. [Portion removed] Not only are you friends with the editor of the Almanac but you are on the Board of Directors with the Fire Department. You and I are both fortunate to live in Atherton and have a wonderful fire district serving us. Regardless of the final number you see in the news paper the firefighters salaries are posted on the districts website and none of those men or women will ever be able to be our neighbors unless they win the lottery. Furthermore if you do the Math Firefighter's make about $30/hour a Firefighter Engineer Makes about $33/hour and a Fire Captain makes about $36/hour these are approximates. The raise they are asking for of 11% sounds unjustifyable if you take it out of context like Peter Carpenter. But the fact is those guys have not had a raise in over 2 years and the 11% would be over a 3 year period equaling about $1/hour raise per year. But Peter Carpenter, Bart Spencer, Ollie Brown, Peter Otake, and Rexford Ianson are responsible for giving raises to all the management in the last two years in some cases up to 32% and recently approving a multi million dollar Fire Station in East Palo Alto. I think we should be pissed off at Peter Carpenter and crew making the Firefighters look bad and spending our tax dollars on his buddies at the top. Mr. Carpenter my question to you is why? I also looked at the site Dave Bragg posted and saw a huge list of volunteer activities that the firefighters do in our community of which only 2 of the firefighters actually live. Did you know that the Fire Chief doesn't even live here?

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 16, 2009 at 9:34 pm

I have just returned from the five alarm fire in Sharon Heights - I think we can all be very proud of the professional response by more than five different fire agencies to this incident. Given the wood shake roofs this could easily have taken out the whole neighborhood had there been higher temperatures and winds.

Hats off to a job well done by all concerned.

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Posted by Grateful
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 16, 2009 at 11:14 pm

To our professional and well equipped Menlo Park fire fighters, I say - thanks.

Today I think we avoided what could have been a regional tragedy.

Anyone remember the Oakland Hills fire in 1991? That began with a few buildings and grew to almost 3,000 homes. How about L.A. or San Diego?

Warm dry weather after hot days and a light breeze - wood shake roofs, dry grass and trees - could have all quickly led to a "Menlo Hills Firestorm."

But that did not happen. It was a real wake-up call.

Watching them work I kept thinking I was so grateful they were there. And then I thought - why are we arguing about what we pay these firefighters? Any amount was totally worth it.

I hope people in Menlo Park get it now. This is serious. It matters.

We are not paying these people. They will not keep working here if this keeps up. They are without a contract - for a year? Really? This stuff is too important to ignore.

Respect our fire district! There is SO MUCH is at stake.

Thank you all for saving my home and my irreplaceable neighborhood.

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Posted by AJ
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 17, 2009 at 12:39 am

As I was walking by one of our neighborhood fire stations recently, I got the opportunity to talk with the station crew, and brought up the issue of their salaries and benefits that have been referenced in the papers lately. Instead of getting caught up in the gossip of all the blogs and random opinions in the media, I wanted to go straight to the source and get my information from those men and women living it. We spoke extensively and in detail about their pay and benefits and they graciously answered all my questions. They have nothing to hide and are in favor of transparency. They also wish the public really knew the truth. They absolutely love their jobs and serving this community.

The fact is, a fire fighter's normal shift equates to a 57-hour work week. I imagine that most of you, like myself, didn't realize that your neighborhood fire fighter is at work 5 months longer PER YEAR than the rest of us in our 'private sector jobs', that everyone wants to compare them to. If you do the math, you'll realize that an average Menlo Park fire fighter makes roughly $30-35/hour base pay…hardly an extravagant salary. I saw an ad the other day for a fast food restaurant manager that paid more per hour. A Menlo Park fire fighter and his/her family pay over $700/month out of pocket for an HMO health plan. Many of those salaries posted in the newspaper reflected overtime hours, not just base pay. That means additional hours above the 57 per week spent away from their families and homes (and might I add they stated that the vast majority of Menlo Park fire fighter's homes are 100 miles or more from Menlo Park because they cannot afford to live here). Too bad the days of your local fire fighter living down the street from you are gone.

In re: to the 39% PERS contribution referenced in a prior posting, this high rate could have been avoided. Due to the poor financial decisions of the department, its administration and the board in years past they chose to pay a minimum percentage/contribution for PERS when the economy was booming. They could have made the responsible choice to "buy down" that rate during better economic times in an effort to keep costs down in the future. It sounds to me like administration and chiefs chose instead to increase their own wages and benefit plans (this was NOT extended to the fire fighters) and put themselves at the TOP pay scale of any other comparable agency. Meanwhile, our Menlo Park fire fighters are at the bottom third of the comparable cities in the bay area.

I initially thought, "Wow, retiring at 50 sure would be nice" but have come to learn that yes, they can retire at 50 with a full retirement...but only if they've put in 30 years of service. A majority of fire fighters are retiring around age 55. How many 'private sector' employees have worked at the same company for 30 years and contributed 10% of their pay all those years to their retirement? Oh yeah, and no bonuses. Sadly, the "lucrative retirement" that some of you refer to is often cut short by cardiac damage, respiratory ailments and cancer, all job related illnesses that these men and women subject themselves to for the well being of us, the citizens. I am not undermining the job of the construction worker who posted his comments, because he serves a very important role in our community. However, I feel that it is ludicrous and unfair for him to say that his job is 'more dangerous' than that of a fire fighter. How many burning buildings does he run into? How many dead bodies does he come across? How many children does he attempt to revive while a grieving, hysterical parent stands witness? Please, a little respect, Sir.

I have learned that our fire fighters are, in fact, NOT demanding "double digit raises", but rather, seeking a reasonable increase in salary and healthcare benefits (they stated that they have not received an increase in their health care plan in over 3 years). It was stated in the above article that the department's revenues will increase, conservatively, by 3-1/2% in this upcoming fiscal year. That being said, based on the fire department's sound financial status, the fire fighter's raise requests are not only reasonable, but would in no way jeopardize the department's financial stability, nor increase any burden on tax payers in our community. The crew said that if the fire fighters believed their requests would in any way jeopardize the department's financial situation or burden the taxpayer, they would opt to forego a raise at this time. However, that is not the situation, and their requests are in no way frivolous or unreasonable.

I, personally, find it disgraceful that some citizens of our community are not supportive of our hard working fire fighters. Before you take part in 'hearsay' and media gibberish, maybe do some legwork of your own and get the facts.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 17, 2009 at 9:24 am

As an elected Director of the MPFPD, I have found the above exchanges to be very helpful and will use them to guide my actions as the Board attempts to resolve this difficult situation.

It is important to note that the union leaders turned down a 3.5% increase made by the District last Fall without even submitting the offer to its members, that all of the other Fire District employees have agreed to a wage freeze given the current economic conditions, that the union leaders are still demanding an 11% increase, that the union leaders have twice refused the District's offer to use a mediator and the union leaders have refused to negotiate in good faith until we fire a key and very well performing employee. However, I will keep trying to reach out to the union leaders and I hope that they will resume good faith negotiations.

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Posted by Owl
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 17, 2009 at 4:11 pm

They always hang out at Safeway.

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Posted by not sympathetic
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jul 17, 2009 at 7:06 pm

I'd say the average work week for many of us tops out well above 60 hours. And we don't get overtime! Working no more than 57 hours a week sounds pretty laidback. We don't have tall buildings in Menlo Park, and their territory is primarily flatlands -- no Oakland Hills scenarios here. It's a pretty sweet gig for a firefighter.

No, we shouldn't pay them whatever they ask. What a silly thing to say! They can certainly afford to buy a house in this area on their salaries (note the average MP salaries above), but they are apparently unwilling to live in the kinds of modest homes that most of us own.

This is simply not an appropriate time to be demanding raises, and the unreasonable stance of the union leaders should make it easier to say no to this attempted extortion.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 17, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Thank all of you for your input. I have just sent this entire exchange to my fellow Fire Board Directors with the following comment:

"We have never gotten more public participation or feedback on any issue than was provided in the Almanac's on-line forum on David Boyce's article on our current labor negotiations. We may not be able to get citizens to come to our meetings but there is certainly a lot of participation in this forum. These responses provide very interesting and diverse insights into how the citizens whom we serve feel about this issue - even in the immediate aftermath of the superb job which our entire team (Firefighters, Chiefs and Prevention) did at the Susan Gale fire.

I urge you to read it carefully in anticipation of our Tuesday discussions.


P.S. As someone who has served for more than twenty years in a variety of public service roles I am not at all concerned about the few very personal attacks by individuals who bravely chose to remain anonymous."

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Posted by bravely anonymous
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 17, 2009 at 10:48 pm

What do you mean by the comment "We have never gotten more public participation or feedback on any issue than was provided in the Almanac's on-line forum...These responses provide very interesting and diverse insights into how the citizens whom we serve feel about this issue..."??? Of the 33 postings, 8 of them were from you, Mr. Carpenter, and several others were repeats from one individual. I'd hardly say that is "diverse insights into how the citizens whom we serve feel about this issue".

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Posted by sfgsg
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jul 18, 2009 at 3:38 pm

it is cheaper to fireproof houses than to pay firefighters

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Posted by Boy with Paper Head
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 18, 2009 at 7:08 pm

It is also cheaper to by your own assault rifles than have a police force.

It is cheaper grow your own vegetables then buy them at the store..

It is cheaper walk then pay gas prices.

It is cheaper to buy a boat then pay the toll on the bridge.

This is a fun game. Anyone else have some great ideas please send

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Posted by Menlo Taxpayer
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 18, 2009 at 8:11 pm

To the ignorant soul who made the comment "it is cheaper to fireproof houses than to pay firefighters", are you aware that 75% of the calls our fire fighters respond to are to provide advanced life support (AKA medical care to someone who is having a heart attack, has been in a car accident, etc.). Our fire fighters are the first on scene, first to administer medical care, first to take care of our citizens no matter the situation. They, literally, save lives every day.

By the way, the Susan Gale fire in Sharon Heights that happened this week involved a townhouse that was equipped with a residential sprinkler system...hmmm, so much for "fire proofing", huh? It boils down to the fact that fire fighters and the services they provide are a NEED, not a luxury.

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Posted by Tommy Gavin
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 19, 2009 at 10:32 am

Pater Carpenter reminds me of that goofy guy who was on that fire board a few ago. I think his name is Steve Kennedy.

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Posted by hard to believe
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 20, 2009 at 8:35 am

The comments about how firefighters risk their lives and save our homes and give us medical care etc. are all true but irrelevant to this discussion. They are paid, and very well, to do just that.

What's relevant here is what their new contract will give them in compensation in the near future. To suggest that anyone who already is well compensated should, during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, be given anywhere near an 11 percent raise is pure insanity. People are taking pay cuts and losing their jobs all up and down this state. Firefighters in other cities are agreeing to freeze or reduce their wages. What on earth is going on in this district?

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Posted by Dr Feelgood
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 20, 2009 at 9:22 am

Still waiting for Peter Carpenter's response on my previous question. Also everyone keeps saying 11%. From what I have read the Firefighters haven't had a raise in over 2 years and the 11% would be over a 3 year period and would still put them below average in salary for San Mateo County Firefighters. And are we really debating $1 - $1.50/hr raise when we live in one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. This should be a non issue and looks like another politician (Peter Carpenter) is looking for some type of angle. I would trust a firefighter way before I would put stock in a politician (Peter Carpenter) who is friends with the editor of the paper. I am also willing to bet that a lot of the anonymous posts bashing firefighters is of his hand too.

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Posted by Karen
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 20, 2009 at 11:49 am

Dr. Feelgood, You seem to want to blow smoke into a discussion where people are, for the most part, trying to see clearly. Unless I'm not reading the firefighters' contract, posted on the website, correctly, you're wrong in saying they haven't had a raise in over 2 years. They received a 7 percent raise in 2006-07, and a 7 percent raise in 2007-08. The reason they didn't get a raise in 2008-09 is because they and the district can't agree on how much, which is why they're at impasse.

And then you talk about "anonymous posts bashing firefighters." That's ridiculous. There might be one or two that are a little disrespectful and silly, but for the most part, posters are NOT bashing firefighters. Some people just think that no one -- firefighters, police officers, teachers, janitors, CEO's -- should receive a huge raise when the economy is in the toilet with no real recovery in sight for a long time. And from what I'm reading, it does sound as if they're asking for 11 percent the first year, not over the life of the contract.

Stop blowing smoke. This is an important discussion.

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Posted by We Will Miss Peter
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jul 20, 2009 at 12:51 pm

I find it very hard to read the garbage strewn about on this blog about Peter Carpenter. Peter is the only one that has the background, the smarts and the "know how" regarding fire fighting, and fire districts. He also has the ability to think objectively about the taxpayer's money, the money that is being considered right now to give as an 11% increase!? No one, especially Peter, thinks we should not have a fire district, or that the firefighters aren't important, etc. What we are trying to determine is how much we are willing to pay? I believe we have to look at the entire district. Do we have too many firefighters? Too many fire houses? Too many policies set in place that waste money?(i.e. sending a truck to help in the case of a heart attack victim?) I cannot believe that our fire district costs in excess of $30M!?
In my opinion, this budget needs an overhaul, and needs some analytical minds, OBJECTIVELY discussing this problem, certainly not the individuals on this blog!

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Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Jul 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm

At the risk of being accused of "bashing" someone on one side or the other, I'm passionate enough about this subject (respect the heck out of emergency personnel from all agencies, dislike politicians, and am not very fond of unions) that I've done some research and have to state a few opinions I've developed as a result.

First, I personally thought the description of the union's grievances and their dissatisfaction with "she who shall not be named" were well stated, very clear and concise, and IF accurate, certainly worth considering. Second, I found it interesting that this whole discussion really got started with Mr. Carpenter "speaking for himself"--just what is the postion of the District Board? Third, if you go to the agenda of tomorrow night's MPFPD Board meeting (a warning, its really hard to follow), you won't see a darn thing about this on the agenda except for a minor note in the Chief's report about a meeting he had with union reps.

Bottom Line--my own conclusion is that Mr. Carpenter, AND the District Board, have seen fit to try to get this issue out into the public forum because they don't or can't face up to the issues that need addressing to reach a satisfactory resolution with the firefighters union. Repeating a previous blogger's comment, it is time to get new people involved in the discussion.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 21, 2009 at 10:27 am

The above dialogue (?) is a perfect example of why I announced months ago that, after over 20 years of elected and appointed public service, I would not stand for re-election to the Fire Board. The lack of informed comments, the use of anonymous names, the personal attacks and, most important, the unwillingness of citizens to be truly engaged are a sad commentary on the state of our citizenry and our citizenship. In the 8 years that I have served on the Fire Board fewer than 20 people in total have appeared to speak at our meetings - of course that means showing up in public and being held accountable for your remarks.

It is a telling fact that in our community it is hard to get citizens to run for public office much less to serve for more than a single term. Remember that, in a democracy, we get exactly the kind of government which we deserve.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 21, 2009 at 3:41 pm

More facts:
Unit 19 in the Gale fire was equipped with two, and only two sprinkler heads. One sprinkler head in the kitchen which activated and one sprinkler head in the garage near the kitchen door activated as well.

These two sprinklers did very little to slow or stop the fire because the fire burned from the unsprinklered attic spaces downward into the living space (Kitchen) and garage. The kitchen sprinkler head was on a plastic line which distorted, bent and failed due to the heat. The garage sprinkler head was found on a metal pipe and appeared to be intact.

These two sprinklers do NOT constitute a sprinkler system which would have included sprinklers in every room in the unit including the attic. A true sprinkler system would have significantly impeded the progress of this fire because it would have suppressed the fire at the point of origin when it was quite small rather than trying to stop a full blown fire.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 24, 2009 at 7:23 am

It can be done - here is an example of true union leadership from across the bay:

Zac Unger: Oakland Fire Union agrees to more than $6 million in cuts
Posted on July 22, 2009 by Becks

This guest post is written by, Zac Unger, a lifelong Oakland resident. He has been an Oakland firefighter for 11 years and serves as a member of the executive board of Local 55.

As some of you may have heard, the firefighter’s union has just approved a new contract by an 80-20 margin. Granted, I’m an Oakland Firefighter and a member of the union’s executive board, but I do think that our concessions represent a major show of good will in these bad economic times. Here are the details:

The bottom line is that we are increasing our workweek from 52 to 56 hours, while also taking an 8% hourly pay cut. This has the effect of leaving our overall yearly salary largely unchanged: decrease the pay, increase the hours. Essentially we’re all working four hours a week for free; it’s like a furlough, but we don’t get to take the time off. This saves the city money, since under Measure Y and other agreements, we have minimum staffing levels. Those four hours per week used to be covered by overtime, at time and a half, and they will now be covered by straight time, a significant savings for the city. In addition to reducing the amount of overtime used, this contract will also reduce the cost of overtime when we do use it, since overtime is based on an hourly wage, and that number has been reduced by 8%.

This is a four year contract; since we’ve been working without a contract for one year, there are three years remaining on this contract. We’re taking zero raise in the first year, zero in the second year, zero in the third year. We will be able to reopen the contract for the last year, but only in regards to the issue of money. So basically: three years of nothing, with a re-opener in the last year, and no guarantee of raises at any point during this four year contract.

Next, we agreed to a change in the way the city covers our medical benefits. It will result in the union membership contributing about $300,000 more per annum, another good savings for the city. In total, the Union has made about $6 million worth of concessions while not reducing the level of service we provide to the citizens. In fact, due to a complicated provision we’ll be able to field an additional 41 paramedics at no increase in cost.

And finally, it’s always important to remember that Oakland Firefighters contribute 13% of our salary to our pensions. The Tribune misstated this; they said that we pay for thirteen percent of our pension, which would imply that the city pays for 87% of our pension. That’s quite incorrect. We pay an amount equal to 13% of our SALARY towards our pension; in some years the city pays nothing, and in some years they pay more than we do. For every $100 I earn, $13 goes directly to CALPERS without ever going into my pocket. This is important as a point of comparison to OPD. They contribute zero to their pension, so every $100 they earn is $100 in their pocket. It’s entirely fair to say that the city is 100% responsible for funding the retirement of the police. They do good work under tough conditions and I don’t begrudge them anything they get, but our situations are not the same. “Policeandfire” is not a monolith and can’t be viewed as having the same deal.

In past budget crises, the city has closed the gap by shuttering stations and reducing fire protection. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve come to an agreement that does not reduce service or increase the risks faced by the people of Oakland. We appreciate all of the support we’ve gotten over the years from everyone in Oakland, and we look forward to many more years of high level service.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 24, 2009 at 4:46 pm


The Board of Directors of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District offers this letter to address the currently stalled labor negotiations and disparaging public statements issued recently by the Menlo Park Firefighters Union concerning District management personnel. We feel that our employees and the public we serve should have access to all the same information we have used to inform our contract negotiations and to know the depth of the Board’s support for the District’s administration.
At the heart of the impasse is the District’s offer to extend the labor contract until the end of the year while maintaining present salary levels and improving the medical plan. As explained to the Fire Union leadership, this fiscally conservative approach is necessary and justified given the rapidly changing and highly uncertain economic conditions facing the District.
To that end, we wish to begin by publicly acknowledging and thanking the District employees represented by AFSCME for ratifying a new cost neutral labor contract with the District and the District’s unrepresented management employees for agreeing to defer a scheduled salary increase until January 2010. Such concessions in these times of economic insecurity and distress are very difficult for all involved and deeply appreciated by the Fire District.
To our firefighters represented by the Menlo Park Firefighters Association, Union Local 2400, the Board also wishes to acknowledge and thank you for the professionalism and dedication to the public service that you offer every day, as recently demonstrated by your response to the July 16th Susan Gale Court fire in Sharon Heights. And while the Board is confident that the present deadlock in negotiations between the Union and the District will not deter District employees from their common mission to serve and protect the public, we are dismayed that over a year of negotiations have resulted in unfair labor practice proceedings and an impasse on the issues of salary and benefits.
We are also distressed and offended by the Union’s public charges against the Fire Chief, the call for the termination of the District’s Director of Administrative Services and by the Union’s suggestion that the public service may suffer if its demands in this regard are not met. This Open Letter offers the Board’s perspective on the labor dispute and the regrettable tactics undertaken by the Union leadership, which are counter-productive, inflammatory, and in opposition to the best interests of the public we serve.
To be clear, we are confident the firefighters of Menlo Park Fire Protection District are fairly compensated. While the District is looking to contain its labor costs, it has and will continue to provide very competitive compensation. Firefighters in our District get paid on average $125,900 in salary and benefits. Sixty-nine of our firefighters were paid more than $100,000 last year. The average cost of employing a firefighter is $170,000.00. In contrast, the median household income (usually two wage earners) of our taxpayers in Menlo Park was $103,702 and East Palo Alto was $49,267 in 2007.
The District also provides a generous pension plan, whereby a firefighter who works for 30 years is entitled to 90% of his or her highest salary, and can retire as early as 50. This benefit plan costs the District approximately 39% of payroll, and this number is projected to go up to almost 50% by 2011.
In the face of pay cuts, rising job losses and property foreclosures in our district, the Union demands to be paid at the higher end of firefighters on the Peninsula, which is an 11% salary increase this year and additional increases thereafter. The Union also demands $1,322 per month for medical insurance benefits, a 55% increase, whether or not the firefighter is single or has a family.
The District cannot accommodate these demands, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding the District costs and revenue sources. In addition to the projected increase in pension costs and the reduction in property tax revenue, the recently adopted State budget promises to take more money away from the District. We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of our District to prudently plan and prepare for these anticipated hits to the District’s budget.
This economic reality is being recognized by many other firefighter unions nearby and across the state. Nearly every day you read of public employee unions agreeing to eliminate and/or defer salary and benefit increases to accommodate the growing fiscal crisis. Just recently, Central County firefighters gave up incentive pay and an increase in order to keep stations open. A recent CALPELPA Economic Crisis Survey of local governments stated that 25% of responding agencies had reduced compensation by 6%, about 40% had not reached agreement on open negotiations, another 25% had unilaterally adopted reductions in compensation and about 31% advised that next year’s negotiations will be worse
It has been suggested the District seek alternative means of financing the increases being sought, including the use of reserves to meet the firefighters’ demands. This is neither responsible nor feasible. Because property tax revenues are paid twice a year, we must keep a half-year’s budget, or about $15 million, in reserve, and we need to keep another $10 million in reserves for apparatus, equipment, and stations replacement, among other obligations. It would be fiscally irresponsible to utilize the District’s critical reserves to fund ongoing salary increases.
The District has made a serious good-faith offer despite our current economic situation by offering contract improvements in the areas of educational incentive pay, EMT and Paramedic Pay, bilingual pay and acting pay. The District has also offered to increase its contributions to employee medical insurance and we have reached tentative agreement on more than 106 subjects covered by the previous labor agreement. And though we are at impasse, we have made repeated offers to the Union leadership to return to the bargaining table with the help of a neutral mediator only to be rebuffed each time. Nevertheless, the District maintains its offer to the Union to return to bargaining to end this dispute.
The Board would be remiss if we did not address the Union’s public mistreatment of the District’s Director of Administrative Services, Michele Braucht. Ms. Braucht is a dedicated public servant who must often say “no” and recommend hard decisions in order to maintain tight budgetary control. Her role is thankless and can be extremely unpopular, but for the Union to singularly and publicly blame her for poor morale and demand her termination is misplaced, unfair and wrong. The Board of Directors has the utmost confidence in Ms. Braucht’s abilities and rejects out of hand the Union’s call for her termination.
We must also address the Union’s charges against Chief Schapelhouman and his administration. As the one charged with overseeing administration and operations of the Department, Chief Schapelhouman also needs to make tough decisions, especially during difficult economic times. The Chief has proven himself to be service-minded, dedicated and passionate about the fire service. Also, he embodies leadership and commands respect. He has our full support.
In closing, we are in the midst of an almost unprecedented economic downturn, and Americans across the state and the country are being forced to make changes in the face of hardship.
The pressing economic conditions have affected people as well as organizations and public agencies, including the Fire District. We are all being challenged to step up and deliver in the manner the public expects and deserves. The Board is asking Department members to strive towards excellence again and to work with the District to resolve our present differences. Such resolution can only be achieved through open and good faith communications at the bargaining table. We have directed the District’s representatives to communicate our standing offer to the Association leadership to join us there so that we may solve our disputes and refocus our energies on the public service.

The Board of Directors of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District
Bart Spencer, President
Peter Ohtaki, Vice President
Ollie Brown
Rex Ianson
Peter Carpenter

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Posted by halle
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 25, 2009 at 2:08 pm

It is ridiculous for our firefighters to go without a contract and good pay. Want to keep them.

Will it take the people stopping this losing their homes to fire first???

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Posted by Halle is WRONG
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jul 25, 2009 at 11:49 pm

I think people HAVE lost their homes, the firefighters just put it out. Yes, we need firefighters, I just don't think we need $32M worth. The contract, the salaries, the benefits, and my tax dollars have gotten out of control! There is absolutely no way anyone can convince me that the latest play of +11% increase is fiscally responsible. They have "good pay", and we "want to keep them", but their union is so out of touch with reality, I'll use my own garden hose, sprinklers and buckets!

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Posted by Sustainable Activist
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 27, 2009 at 5:05 pm

This is our chance to start replacing these overpriced individuals. Let's take advantage of it. Otherwise bankruptcy will inevitably have to be declared to void their contracts. Their contract is not sustainable.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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