Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Palo Alto firefighters want voters to rescue them from layoffs

As a resident and property owner of Palo Alto, I think the firefighters are going to get a really rude awaking when their ballot fails to pass.  Then again, I'm complete fine with getting rid of most of the Palo Alto police department and have them fight it out to see who gets the set resources.

Why do we need a massive police department in Palo Alto when the department spends most of their time harassing people that results in the city getting sued and loosing large settlements over it?  I can honestly say we can cut the police department in half and still probably do fine.  In case the people reading this never encountered a cop or detective, it is okay, and legal, for them to lie, cheat, and make things up to incriminate you.  In other words, the end justifies the means.  Unfortunately, most of the time the end is made up by the officers themselves.

The firefighters I don't have as much problems with, but having 4 or 5 independent fire stations for 1 city is just a bit ridiculous.  Don't most cities of Palo Alto's size only have 1 per town?

I honestly believe most civil servants in Palo Alto are overzealous and overpaid.  In this time of economic instability, they need to just suck it up and stop crying like a little whiny toddler. Honestly, each firefighter on average is paid $178,000.  Most Palo Alto residents do not make that, so why should we pay so much for those guys just to sit around?  Let's be honest, this is a fairly plush job, besides going to elementary schools and rescuing cats stuck in trees, there isn't THAT many fires in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto firefighters want voters to rescue them from layoffs

By Will Oremus

Daily News Staff Writer

Posted: 03/17/2010 03:00:00 AM PDT

Palo Alto's firefighters union has filed papers for a November ballot measure that would block the city from laying off any firefighters as it tries to meet a projected $9 million budget gap.

Tony Spitaleri, president of Palo Alto Fire Fighters Local 1319, filed a notice of intent to circulate a petition with the city clerk's office March 10, according to city documents. The measure, which needs a simple majority to pass, would amend the city's charter to prohibit Palo Alto from ever having fewer firefighters than it does this year.

It would also require a public referendum on any future effort by the city council to close or relocate a fire station.

The measure faces a steep road to approval. But if it passes, it would be a huge victory for the firefighters union at a time when City Manager James Keene is calling for across-the-board budget cuts. Fire services would be protected while other departments lose positions and cut services.

The city is spending $26 million on fire service this year, about 18 percent of its total general fund operating budget. The firefighters union's 109 full-time employees earn an average of $105,000 in salary and $21,000 in overtime and holiday pay, with a total compensation of $178,000 including benefits.

In past years, the union has won minimum staffing requirements as part of its negotiated contract with the city. That means that when firefighters retire or go on disability leave, the city has to either replace them or pay other firefighters overtime to pick up the slack.

That safeguard appears in jeopardy, however, as the city and union gear up for new talks this spring. Keene said he plans to ask each city department to shave about 6 percent from its budget next year. That could be difficult for the fire department to achieve without cutting staff.

Meanwhile, the city is aiming to slash benefits and pensions citywide to avoid future budget crises. Last year the city imposed cuts on its service workers, while top managers agreed to similar rollbacks and police officers voluntarily put off raises. But the firefighters declined to follow suit, taking 4 percent pay hikes at a time when the rest of the city's workers were taking big hits.

The union may not be able to avoid wage cuts this time around. But the ballot measure would insulate it from layoffs and prevent a dip in service.

Just getting it on the ballot is a tall chore, however. Because it is a charter amendment, the petition will need to be signed by 15 percent of all registered voters in the city, said City Clerk Donna Grider. That's 5,446 people.

Other types of initiatives only need support from 6 to 12 percent of the prior election's voter roll, she said.

Backers can begin collecting signatures once they advertise the proposed ballot measure in an approved newspaper, Grider said. They will likely have to turn in the petitions by June to qualify for the November ballot.

Mayor Pat Burt reacted skeptically to the union's proposal.

"I think they are trying to retain staffing that an independent audit may find is higher than we need as a community, higher than we can afford as a community, and higher than surrounding communities have," he said.

Spitaleri, the union's president and a city council member in Sunnyvale, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He has said in the past that the fire department has endured heavy cutbacks over the years, leaving it at "bare bones" levels. Closing a fire station would be "gambling with the public's safety," he told The Daily News last year.

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