With negotiations at an impasse, the race for three seats on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board has boiled down to a contest between union-backed candidates and three others who might not favor granting firefighters an 11 percent pay increase over the next three years.
Three candidates, Stephen Nachtsheim, James M. Harris and Rexford Ianson, turned down union endorsement, saying they want to remain independent during what will continue to be tough negotiations for a new contract. With district finances looking more and more shaky as local property values level off and plummet in East Palo Alto, these candidates are reluctant to add more costs to a district that already is looking at slipping into a negative cash flow position.
The union-backed group, Jack Nelson, Jon Mosby and Robert J. Silano, acknowledge that costs need to be contained, but all accepted union endorsement and are open to approving a contract that might include a pay increase. All three candidates have put in hours as volunteers on fire district-related activities, such as the disaster-relief CERT program.
However, in our view, what the district needs now are board members who will take a much harder look at the rising costs of employee compensation, including retirement, and are willing to find ways to save in other areas, like adopting a two-tier retirement system and sharing some staff with nearby fire departments.
Mr. Nachtsheim, Mr. Harris and Mr. Ianson say that as board members they would resist union pressure, but work hard to negotiate a fair contract that serves district residents and local firefighters. Mr. Nachtsheim and Mr. Harris have strong financial backgrounds, and Mr. Ianson is a retired firefighter who declined endorsement from his former union.
Mr. Nachtsheim, a former Intel executive and now CEO of a Fortune 1000 company, became interested in fire district affairs after working on disaster preparedness for his Walsh Road neighborhood in Atherton. As a member of numerous corporate and nonprofit boards, he said he would bring a business approach to the district, such as consolidating some office operations with nearby departments. He said he sees a danger that falling property taxes and rising retirement costs could create a worst-case shortfall of up to a $5 million in the next two to three years.
Mr. Nachtsheim also says the district needs to plan for population growth in East Palo Alto and find money to upgrade the station there, and find ways to respond if bridges over U.S. 101 are damaged in an earthquake.
James Harris would bring significant business experience to the board. As CEO of his own company, Mr. Harris has the kind of "hand on the tiller" experience needed on the board. He notes that since 2006, district revenues are up 5.2 percent, while expenditures are up 8.9 percent. That is the problem that has to be fixed, he said.
Firefighter compensation, which is two-thirds of the district's budget, is a concern, he said, noting that district firefighters are not underpaid, with 50 engineers reaching $178,000 a year in total compensation. Twenty-four captains and nine chief officers are paid more than $200,000, he said.
Besides putting controls on compensation, Mr. Harris said he is not sure how to address a station upgrade project that is on hold after a grant application was turned down. He agrees that two stations are needed east of U.S. 101 and said he would apply a business-like approach to look for the funds to upgrade or add to stations.
Incumbent Rexford Ianson has impressed us over his four years on the board. A former firefighter and union member, he has shown his independence in fiscal matters and brings a much-needed "inside the fire house" look to the board.
Mr. Ianson said a union-filed charge against the board has slowed negotiations with firefighters, and until it is resolved, "nothing can happen." Although he said the board is ready to talk to the union anytime, the district is handicapped by not knowing what the financially strapped state government might take away, and whether property tax income will decrease due to slumping home values.
Another possible way to reduce expenditures is to adopt one of the less costly retirement formulas offered by PERS, he said. Other savings could come from sharing technical support, accounting and human resources work with other nearby departments. Changes in the retirement formula would not affect recruiting he said, noting that there were over 100 applicants for the last opening.
The Almanac recommends Stephen Nachtsheim, James M Harris and Rexford Ianson for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board.