Thursday, June 24, 2010

Gilroy City Council to take a closer look at contracting out fire services

With fire union set to vote on city proposal, council explores contracting options

Wednesday, June 23, 2010
By Jonathan Partridge (

The City Council wants to take a closer look at contracting out fire services even as the local fire union plans to vote on a city compensation proposal this week.The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2805, the union that represents Gilroy firefighters, is set to vote Wednesday on contract concessions proposed by the city. The vote comes a week before a year-long contract concessions agreement between the fire union and the city is set to expire.
Meanwhile, the council directed city staff earlier this month to look at the idea of contracting services with other agencies, such as CalFire or the Santa Clara County Fire Department.
"To me, this is not a negotiating tactic," Councilman Perry Woodward said this week. "It's not a way to bring the union to heel on some short-term issue. This is about making the current retirement system work."
At the council's June 7 meeting, Woodward requested city staff provide the council with information about contracting out fire services with CalFire. Councilman Bob Dillon wondered if the council also should look at contracting with the Santa Clara County Fire Department, and Woodward agreed. With a unanimous thumbs-up vote, the council directed city staff to place the matter on a future council meeting agenda.
City Administrator Tom Haglund said this week that city staff aims to have a report ready by the council's July 19 meeting. The report will include information about what would be required to make such a switch, Haglund said. Specifically, it would cover legal matters, such as issues related to Local 2805, as well as information about a "level of service" agreement and the timeline for making a switch. The report will not include bids, as the city has not outlined a scope of services that it desires, Haglund said.
"This is not going to be geared toward making an instant decision," Haglund said.
Woodward expressed concern this week that retirement plans for city employees are not sustainable. Like most other council members, he is pushing for a two-tiered retirement system in which new employees would receive a different set of benefits from current employees.
The fire department would be a good place to start, he said.
"You've got to start somewhere," Woodward said. "The fact of the matter is the firefighters have been the most aggressive in the way that they've negotiated with the city in the past 15 years."
Woodward and other council members have criticized the fire department in the past for its use of binding arbitration, a system in which a third-party arbiter chooses between the final offers of the city and union if either party decides labor negotiations are at an impasse. Police and fire unions have said it is their prime bargaining chip, as public safety workers are not allowed to strike.
Recent negotiations between the city and fire union also have been tense. The fire union made a one-year concession with the city last year for this current fiscal year that included about $500,000 in savings to the city, and the city has asked Local 2805 to extend those concessions. If they are not extended, Local 2805 will receive an 8.44-percent increase in compensation starting July 1, plus an additional 1.5-percent increase in 2011, city officials have said.
Although council members say they cannot comment on specifics of the negotiations, Woodward expressed frustration with the process.
"I think that (firefighters) are having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that structural change is upon them," he said. "This is a new era of public employment."
Jim Buessing, secretary and treasurer of Local 2805, also would not comment on negotiations, although he said there have been several meetings between the city and the union.
He also would not comment on the council's desire to look further into contracting out fire services.
"We don't know what the terms or the costs would be," he said.
Steven Woodill, CalFire's unit chief for Santa Clara County and fire chief of the South Santa Clara County Fire District, said the agency has contracts with cities throughout the state, including in several cities in Riverside County.
Although CalFire has a contract with the South Santa Clara County Fire District, which oversees fire protection in the South County's unincorporated areas, it does not have any contracts with any of its cities, he said. None of the cities in Santa Clara County have formally approached CalFire, he said, although Woodill said he occasionally receives requests for information.
Before the agency could provide a bid, CalFire and city officials would need to sit down for formal discussions and CalFire would need a request for proposal, he said.
"It's very hard to quantify cost," he said. "You have to be very specific about the level of service that a given entity wants."
Meanwhile, Santa Clara County Fire Department has contracts with nine cities, including the South County city of Morgan Hill.
Like CalFire, the Santa Clara County Fire Department has no interest in seeking contracts with cities that have not approached them, Assistant Chief Steve Staump said.
"We are not imperialistic to go in some place where we have not been invited," he said.
Some cities have approached the department in the past to save money, while others have done so because they want an improvement in service, Staump said.
"Are there cost savings in some areas? Absolutely," Staump said. "Are we the cheapest around? Maybe not."
Woodward wants to learn whether the city would experience savings with CalFire, and if so, why that is the case, he said.
Council members have said these are dire economic times, and the city must take a long-term look at the impacts of city benefit and retirement plans.
"We've got to take a look at what's in the best interest of the community, not what's in the best interest of a union," Councilman Craig Gartman said.
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