(An edited version of this column was originally published in the Alameda Sun March 27, 2014).
Every child probably would like to have a rich uncle who can be counted on regularly to put the latest gadget under the Christmas tree.
But even Bill Gates’s nieces and nephews might envy the members of the Alameda firefighters’ union, whose letters to Santa have found a receptive audience – one might even say a captive audience — at City Hall.
The most recent package presented to the firefighters by their friends on City Council is a new $5 million fire station to be built on the corner of Hibbard and Buena Vista next to the new $3 million Emergency Operations Center. Having previously authorized bond financing for the new EOC, City Council last Tuesday approved a “financing plan” for the new fire station. Site preparation work is expected to begin this fall.
Those with long memories – or at least memories going back two years – may recall that the administration headed by City Manager John Russo and Mayor Marie Gilmore tried in 2012 to get the voters to raise sales tax rates to pay for the new fire station and EOC. The voters turned them down, so they had to resort to other means to accomplish their goal.
The endeavor has turned out to be expensive. Two years ago, the Russo/Gilmore administration told the public that the new fire station and EOC together would cost $4.5 million. Now, the aggregate cost of construction is up to $8 million. And that doesn’t include debt service: since the City is borrowing money for pay for both the fire station and the EOC, the total cost actually is more like $8.07 million (by staff’s own estimates) for the fire station and $4.06 million (by ours) for the EOC.
The new fire station may be the latest package the firefighters found under the tree, but it’s hardly the first. Since IAFF Local 689’s Political Action Committee spent around $40,000 to elect Mayor Gilmore, Councilwoman Lena Tam, and Councilman Rob Bonta in November 2010, the politicians have sent a steady flow of brand-new gear the firefighters way.
By now, the public surely has heard about the new $500,000 fire boat equipped with a pump that can spray up to 2,000 gallons of water a minute. (“It’s almost like a floating hydrant,” acting Deputy Fire Chief Doug Long was quoted as saying). A few weeks ago, the craft was christened the “Deanna Jo” at a ceremony attended by IAFF Local 689 president Dom Weaver and other local dignitaries.
But the Deanna Jo isn’t the most expensive addition to the arsenal acquired under the auspices of the Russo/Gilmore administration. Since September 2011, Council has voted to approve buying – on credit — two new ladder trucks, two new fire engines, and one new and one refurbished ambulance. All told, the cost in principal and interest is around $6.5 million.
During the same period, Council has OK’d cash purchases of a new “rescue vehicle,” three new pickup trucks, four new “interceptor utility vehicles,” and a new “fire chief command vehicle” for former IAFF Local 689 president and current fire chief Mike D’Orazi. Including the $36,000 for the Chiefmobile, these purchases total more than $750,000.
The politicians’ largesse has extended beyond marine and automotive items. For example, in April 2012 Council approved spending $325,362 on “wildlands firefighting personal protective equipment” (if there are farms in Berkeley there must be wildlands in Alameda). Likewise, in May 2013 Council OK’d spending $201,709 on electronic and exercise equipment for use in EMS training and the “wellness fitness program.”
And, oh, did we mention the $672,772 for 127 handheld and vehicle portable radios purchased with borrowed money?
We should point out that, for some, but not all, of these items, the City was able to obtain grants from the federal government to cover 80% of the tab. But we assume the politicians took off the labels before they wrapped up the packages.
And let’s not forget the stocking stuffers: actual cash to the firefighters in the form of wages and retirement benefits.
Just before two firefighters’ union-endorsed candidates joined Mayor Gilmore and Councilwoman Tam on the dais in December 2012, Council approved public safety contracts providing for annual pay raises of up to 4% in 2014, 5% in 2015, and 5% in 2016. Even if only the minimum raises are paid, the higher salaries and associated benefits will cost at least $1.7 million, and probably more as a result of subsequent hikes in CalPERS contribution rates.
At the same time, Council authorized creating a “disaster preparedness fire captain” position – somebody’s got to work in the new EOC — costing $1 million over the life of the contracts and bringing the total number of captains to 21 in a department with 98 sworn personnel.
Then, in April 2013, Council approved allowing Alameda firefighters who previously had worked at the Naval Air Station – including IAFF Local 689 president Weaver – to purchase “air time” credits that would increase their pensions. Staff estimated that 15-20 firefighters would take advantage of this opportunity – but it said the cost to the City was “unknown.”
No, Bill Gates has nothing on our City Council when it comes to beneficence toward the favored few. There’s one difference: Bill can afford it. He doesn’t owe around $200 million for the benefits he’s promised his family members in the future. That is the amount of the City’s unfunded liability for pensions and retiree health care benefits for public employees. But ssh! Let’s not spoil the celebration.
EOC & fire station no. 3: Yes on C argument; 2013-09-17 staff report re refinancing COPs; Final official statement for 2013 COPs; 2014-03-18 staff report re financing FS 3; 2014-01-27 Ex. 4 to staff report to PB – Initial Study for FS3& EOC
Equipment: 2011-02-15 staff report re new rescue vehicle; 2011-09-20 staff report re equipment purchases; 2012-04-17 staff report re wildland firefighting grant; 2012-07-17 staff report re equipment purchases; 2012-09-04 staff report re ambulance purchase; 2012-10-02 staff report re fire boat; 2013-10-15 staff report re equipment purchase