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Almanac editorial: Nachtsheim, Harris and Ianson for fire board

Original post made by News Guy, another community, on Oct 21, 2009

This editorial was published in the Oct. 21, 2009, issue of The Almanac.

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.

Comments (3)

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Posted by Concerned Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 22, 2009 at 7:43 am

It appears to be the only consideration for a Almanac Endorsement is not having or having a union endorsement. Ms Batti segment suggests many of the same ideas of all candidates as to benefits, salary considerations and much more. Remember, these are the fire fighters that were at the Pancake Breakfast, they are people like all of us. Review the salaries of all San Mateo County fire departments and districts. They are all pretty much in line together. We must be competitive with other cities and towns to retain our fire fighters. Loss of this personnel resource will cost much more money in replacement costs, re- training of personnel and possibilities of the "Blue Flu" as what has been happening in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Joanna
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 22, 2009 at 1:52 pm

There are hundreds of hungry candidates for every opening.

Like this comment
Posted by Informed
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 22, 2009 at 5:22 pm


By Andrea Gemmet
Almanac Staff Writer

Jerry Gruber, Atherton's city manager, has been on the job fewer than two years, but clearly, he's won the whole-hearted support of the City Council. He is getting a 10-percent raise, bringing his annual salary up to $160,000. The 10-percent raise is retroactive to January 2009.

The council approved the raise on a 5-0 vote at the Oct. 21 meeting. As an item on the consent agenda, it passed without comment.

Mr. Gruber started work for the town in January 2008 with an annual salary $145,000.

The city manager job also comes with a $400 monthly car allowance and free housing, in the form of a town-owned home in Holbrook-Palmer Park. Living at the city manager's house is a requirement of the job, and thus a tax-free perk, according to a legal opinion included in Mr. Gruber's contract. Under his contract, the town also pays the full cost of his retirement and health care benefits.

Mr. Gruber's new contract with the town was negotiated by a council subcommittee composed of Elizabeth Lewis and Jim Dobbie, and was reviewed by Atherton's labor counsel before being brought to the full council for approval.

Posted by blowin in the wind, a resident of the Atherton: Lloyden Park neighborhood, 1 hour ago

Andre Gemmet left out the part about the seven month severance agreement.

Sure the Council voted 5-0. However when things get tough, and they are about to for the town, the Council will turning on the very man in charge they supposedly now embrace.

If one needs any example of that, look at how the City Council threw Jim Robinson under the bus after his six faithful years of service.

For that reason Jerry Gruber should thank his lucky stars the Council has given him time to update his resume. They will badmouth the poor fellow once he has gone just like they always have in the past.

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