Fire keeps on burning

On today’s episode of “The Millionaire,” City Finance Director Elena Adair shows up on your doorstep.  She’s carrying a check and an envelope.

The check is for $1.2 million (inflation, you know).

The envelope contains a letter enclosing a resolution signed by Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and every member of Council granting you the authority to decide how to spend the money.

But there’s a catch:  you can use the check only for one of the purposes listed in the letter.  You get four options – the Merry-Go-Round selected the first three; City staff picked the last.

You can spend the money:

  • To give every extremely low income household in Alameda that is currently spending more than 30 percent of its income on rent an immediate, one-time subsidy of about $600.  (According to the American Community Survey, there were 1,998 such households in Alameda in 2017.)
  • To pay for building two units in a new affordable-housing complex.  (According to the Bay Area Council, the average construction cost for a unit of affordable housing in San Francisco is $591,000.)
  • To create a “tuff shed village” serving 20 homeless families. (According to the Mercury News, the 20-unit Northgate project in Oakland cost about $1 million, including $175,000 for the sheds, $550,000 for onsite staffing and services, and a $125,000 fund for helping residents land permanent housing.)

Or . . .

You can spend the money to hire six new firefighters, bringing the total number of authorized personnel in the fire department to 117 – its highest total in at least 15 years.

From our perspective, it would be hard to argue with any of the first three choices.  We’ve all heard about the “rent crisis,” the “affordable housing crisis,” and the “homelessness crisis” affecting the City of Alameda (and everywhere else in the Bay Area.)  Spending $1.2 million won’t eradicate any of these problems – but if they’ve truly reached the “crisis” level, those charged with managing the taxpayers’ money ought to give them top priority.

Nor do we mean to imply that our choices are the only worthwhile uses for the hypothetical check from Ms. Adair.  The Alameda Housing Authority is going to need money to pay the construction costs for the affordable-housing project on the North Housing site.  (A minimum of 90 units is required; up to 489 are permitted.)  The Recreation and Parks department is going to need money to build out the two remaining phases of the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park.  (RecPark director Amy Wooldridge told us the cost estimate is $11 million.)  Finally, the City is going to need money to implement the recommendations made by the soon-to-be-adopted Climate Action and Resiliency Plan.  (For example, at Wednesday’s Council meeting, Vice Mayor John Knox White suggested creating a new position to “coordinate” efforts between the City Manager and individual departments.)

None of our three options – or any of the other potential uses we outlined – made it into the draft budget presented to Council Wednesday night (other than a $165,000 “contingency” for the climate-action plan).  But the proposal to increase fire-department staffing did.

The six new firefighters would operate, in shifts, a new “emergency ambulance transport unit” – the fourth in the City’s fleet.  (The new ambulance itself will cost $400,000.)  If they are hired, the trend toward enlarging the fire department staff will continue, and, indeed, accelerate.

In May 2010, having undergone a reduction-in-force instigated by the much-maligned former Interim City Manager, Ann Marie Gallant, the fire department applied for a so-called SAFER grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security that would enable it to hire six new firefighters.  DHS approved the application, and, at the beginning of fiscal year 2011-12, the total number of authorized fire personnel was 104.  Since then, the headcount has increased four times:

  • A new position for a “disaster preparedness” captain was created as part of the FY 2013-14 budget.  Initially, the cost was split between the fire and police departments.  This brought the total number of authorized fire personnel to 104.5.
  • New positions for a division chief and two “community paramedic/firefighters” were created in July 2014, using a grant from the County of Alameda.  This brought the total number of authorized fire personnel to 107.5.
  • New positions for a fire captain and two fire-inspector/firefighters were created in April 2017.  These positions were paid for out of the General Fund.  This brought the total number of authorized fire personnel to 110.5.
  • A new position for a fire marshal/division chief was created this March.  Fire Chief Edmond Rodriguez assured Council that new or increased user fees would cover the cost.  Since the fire department previously had taken over the entire pay package for the “disaster preparedness” captain, this new position raised the total number of authorized fire personnel to 112.

Here’s what it looks like graphically:

Fire Department Staffing 1

As the chart shows, with the six new firefighters, fire department staffing will hit its highest level in the last nine years.  But that’s just how far back our own budget data goes.  Human Resources Director Nancy Bronstein told us that her records show that the fire-department headcount hasn’t been this high since FY 2004-05.

The staff report estimates the cost of the six new firefighters at $1.15 million in FY 2019-20 and $1.22 million in FY 2020-21.  The report didn’t describe how these numbers were calculated, but they appear consistent with the current pay schedule for the fire department.

The department divides its sworn personnel into fire apparatus operators and firefighters.  According to the data compiled by Transparent California, the highest paid fire apparatus operator in Alameda made $261,557 in salary and benefits in 2017; the lowest paid made $183,729, and the total compensation package averaged $230,194 ($162,836 in salary and $67,358 in benefits).  Similarly, the highest paid firefighter made $251,930 in salary and benefits; the lowest paid made $122,603, and the total compensation package averaged $192,408 ($134,855 in salary and $57,553 in benefits.)  (In computing the figures for firefighters, we excluded the five who did not work a full year.)

In case you’re wondering, according to the American Community Survey, the median household income in Alameda in 2017 was $89,045 – but, of course, very few Alameda firefighters actually live here.

When he presented the proposal to hire six more firefighters, Fire Chief Rodriguez sought to minimize the financial impact on the General Fund.

The City had applied, he said, for another SAFER grant from DHS.  The City would be required to put up matching funds, as it is doing now for the current SAFER grant.  (The draft budget asks for $287,000 in FY 2019-20 and $307,000 in FY 2020-21 as the City’s share of the cost of the six firefighters hired under the original grant.)  According to an exhibit to the staff report, the second SAFER grant, “if received,” would “pay 75% percent [of what, is not entirely clear] for first two years and 35% in final years.”  The remaining expense would come out of the General Fund.

Of course, if DHS finds that the City’s latest application doesn’t serve the purpose of a SAFER grant – “to enhance . . . local fire departments’ abilities to comply with staffing, response and operational standards established by the NFPA” – the City will have to pay the entire $1.15 million/$1.22 million cost of the six new firefighters, not just a quarter or two-thirds of it, directly from the General Fund.  Nevertheless, Chief Rodriguez expressed optimism that this wouldn’t become necessary:  “We have a great track record in receiving SAFER grants,” he said.

But that wasn’t all.  The cost of the six new firefighters would be defrayed, Chief Rodriguez asserted, by increased fee revenue.  Sound familiar?  It’s the same argument the Chief made when he pitched Council to create the new position for a fire marshal/division chief.  It’s also the same argument former Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi made to get Council to authorize the “Basic Life Support” program in February 2012.  The City has never disclosed exactly how much the BLS program ended up losing, but the cost to the taxpayers ran into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The extent to which Chief Rodriguez is counting on additional fee revenue to cover the cost of the six new firefighters – or how much of that cost it actually would cover – isn’t exactly clear.  The slideshow represented that the fourth ambulance would “increase” estimated “ambulance fees” by $138,000 in FY 2019-20 and by a nice, round $500,000 the following year.  But during his presentation, the Chief stated that the City had been “losing” $200,000 annually as the result of not having a fourth ambulance.  So is the new addition to the fleet going to make up for lost revenue, bring in brand-new revenue, or both?

It was not, we’re sure, Chief Rodriguez’s intent to oversell the proposal as giving the City something for nothing.  Rather, we suspect that his remarks were targeted at Mr. Knox White, who had explicitly based his vote in favor of creating the fire marshal/division chief position on the Chief’s pledge that no money would need to be spent from the General Fund to pay for it.  If Mr. Knox White were convinced that the financial impact on the General Fund of hiring six more firefighters would be minimal – even if it were not non-existent – he might go along with that request, too, regardless of its merits.

Ah, but what about the merits?  Why exactly does the City need to buy another “emergency ambulance transport unit” and hire six more firefighters to operate it?

That’s a tough question to answer.

The staff report itself stated only that, “Six of the 12 new positions recommended in
2019-20 are firefighter positions needed to support a new ambulance.”  The accompanying slideshow referred to “750 New Transports/EMS growth.”  But neither document went into any detail tying these two observations together.

We thought that we might get an answer from the application for the SAFER grant, since DHS requires an applicant to explain why it needs to hire more personnel.  But when we asked H.R. Director Bronstein, usually one of the most responsive staff members at City Hall, for a copy of the new grant application, she refused to provide it.  “We are not disclosing the grant application because the application is not final until the grant is awarded to the City,” Ms. Bronstein stated in an email.  “Preliminary drafts and documents subject to the deliberative process privilege of Government Code Sections 6254(a) and 6255 are exempt from disclosure.  The material would also be subject to the Official Information Privilege of Evidence Code Section 1040.”

Ms. Bronstein usually doesn’t write that way, and we detect the fine hand of the City Attorney’s office in her response.  Our suspicion is strengthened because the argument, on its face, defies common sense:  you don’t have to be a lawyer – or a Superior Court judge – to regard an application as “final” when the applicant signs it and sends it off.  And once the application is received, the only entity engaged in a “deliberative process” is DHS, and we can’t imagine the City is asserting a privilege on behalf of the appointees of Donald Trump.

So we’re left with Chief Rodriguez’s oral presentation to Council.  And, with all due respect to the Chief, we didn’t really understand the case he was making.  What seems clear is that the fire department anticipates that the demand for ambulance transports will increase by about 750 trips per year.  What wasn’t especially clear was where these new calls would be coming from.  It wasn’t as if Alamedans are expected to suffer more heart attacks and strokes requiring emergency transports to the hospital.  Rather, a “significant part” of the increased demand, the Chief said, will result from the City assuming responsibility for taking psychiatric patients to treatment facilities.

Nor was it particularly clear why a fourth ambulance and six more firefighters are necessary to meet the increased demand, whatever its cause.  Chief Rodriguez didn’t offer any statistics about how many calls for ambulance transport the department was now getting.  But 750 new calls per year works out to about two new calls per day.  That doesn’t seem like a excessive increment to ask the three ambulances currently providing this service to handle among them.

The one Councilman who dug into the staffing proposal – Tony Daysog – inquired about its impact on “response times,” presumably referring to the time it takes for an ambulance to get to your house on an urgent call.  As it happens, the City publishes data on that topic on its website:  For the first quarter of 2019, the average response time for Fire Station No. 1 was 4.10 minutes; for Fire Station No. 2, 4.22 minutes; for Fire Station No. 3, 4.28 minutes, and for Fire Station No. 4, 4.52 minutes.  One would have expected that, if Chief Rodriguez had determined that having a fourth ambulance would cut minutes, or even seconds, off these response times – or if not having a fourth ambulance would add minutes, or even seconds, to the response times – he would have quantified the benefit obtained or harm avoided and presented the results.

But he didn’t.  Instead, although the Chief insisted that having a fourth ambulance “would actually improve our response times,” his answer to Mr. Daysog dealt primarily with the effect on revenues.  “Right now we run out of ambulances very frequently, and with the projected amount of new transports, there’s no way we could handle that volume with the volume that we lose,” he said.  “We lose a lot of revenue every year because we don’t have the transport capacity that we should.”  That doesn’t strike us as much of a public-safety justification for buying a new ambulance and hiring six more firefighters.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the Council members devoted more time to the other items in the fire department’s budget proposals than to its staffing requests.  (Originally, the department also had asked to create yet another new fire captain’s position – that would bring the total number of captains to 23 – but City Manager Eric Levitt apparently talked Chief Rodriguez into deferring the request.)

And the direction appeared headed toward giving the fire department more, not less:  Ms. Ashcraft wanted to hear about Chief Rodriguez’s ideas for expanding “diversity”;  Mr. Knox White wanted to hear about the plans for re-opening Fire Station No. 5; and Councilwoman Malia Vella wanted to make sure that the renovations proposed for Fire Station No. 1 would include energy efficiency and lactation stations.  Only Mr. Daysog even hinted at imposing any sort of restraint on fire-department spending.

(We understand that Council also discussed the fire department budget during its Thursday meeting, but the video hadn’t been posted by close of business on Friday, so we’ll have to hope that no one on the dais or at the podium took back any of the statements we’ve quoted in this piece.)

The final budget goes before Council on June 18.  Make a note to check your Alameda Sun this summer.  We’ll bet that one day you’ll find a picture on the front page of the welcoming ceremony for the six new firefighters joining the fire department  – regardless of whether the City needs (or can afford) them.

Sources:

Budget workshop: 2019-05-15 staff report re FY 19-20 & FY 20-21 budget; 2019-05-15 Ex. 1 to staff report – Proposed All Funds and General Fund Budget Summary; 2019-05-15 Presentation – REVISED

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in Budget, City Hall, Firefighters and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Fire keeps on burning

  1. dave says:

    The IAFF’s investment returns beat any hedge fund or money manager out there. Ten grand sprinkled around here and there has gotten them tens of millions in excess pay & benefits. No asset cash flows like a council member….

  2. Mike McMahon says:

    Firefighting in the state of California is challenging.
    https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article230474629.html

    • carol says:

      True, Mike. At least we in Alameda know we are doing our part to defend against those wily wildfires which might jump over the estuary to the main island, or the Oakland Airport to devastate Bay Farm. You just never know how far an ember will travel.

      • Mike McMahon says:

        The point of the article was to point out a reduction by the Federal government in paying for services provided by by Bay Area fire departments including Alameda is going to cost local taxpayers.

  3. Steve Gerstle says:

    What measurable improved health outcomes are expected from this new ongoing investment of public funds? What has been the decrease in fires in Alameda after hiring three new fire prevention officers? How does the City of Alameda measure program success and the advisability for additional investments in these programs? Are the measures used considered best practices? Would a similar investment in different programs yield better results? Are there different models that would lead to improved success?

  4. Fernside - High St Rez says:

    Let’s use that money on hiring more police officers. Did you know there are only FIVE police officers on duty all night long for the entire island!? Crime and crazy speeding in our neighborhood is endless, so tired of it. Any concerned folks please call the city council, call the mayor, call the Chief of Police … squeaky wheel!! They need to hear from us and hear from us often.

  5. Steve Gerstle says:

    Fernside: The City is enjoying approximately $1,300,000 annually in “salary savings” by not hiring five police officers already approved by the City Council. Please see page 12 of the budget summary.
    alameda.legistar.com/gateway.aspx?M=F&ID=f42aba50-87b6-4f3a-97c4-c28bfde17c6a.pdf
    I do not see this as a good way to save money. I cannot remember the last time that I saw a police officer in my neighborhood.
    https://www.crimemapping.com/Share/ada30220b00048029cb016d7617a8a4f
    https://www.crimemapping.com/Share/9900f7dcc05042f093b66382f7ebeb9a

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