In order to understand what has transpired in the last two months, we need to go back to 2008. Without rehashing the last decade in all its sordid details, between the Vanguard’s fiscal analysis starting in 2008 and the Grand Jury report that came out in June of that year, there are two separate but related issues with the Davis firefighters’ union that arose.
First, they exerted a disproportionate influence on the political process and, second and related to this influence, their compensation was out of proportion with that of other bargaining units. Compensation exploded in the first decade of this century, but for fire they received in 2004 a 36 percent raise over five years, about double any other bargaining unit in the city. As a result, firefighters were getting on average 20 to 30 percent more just in raw salary than their police counterparts, and far higher based on overtime.
Policies implemented since 2010 have been aimed at reining in both the excesses of the firefighters’ union’s influence, as well as reining in the salary differential. As such, we have seen things like a reversal in four on an engine, imposed contracts, and shared management services.
At some point, however, the city needed to bring the firefighters back into the fold. The city was content to remain in the shared management agreement, but the conduct by the firefighters’ union made that impractical from the university’s perspective. They ended shared management at the end of June and that necessitated a new chief being hired by the city.
The city then brought in long-time Los Angeles Firefighter Daryl Arbuthnott, and he brings to the table an outsider’s perspective, big city department experience – and, while I do not necessarily agree with him on the issue of fire staffing, I believe based on our meeting this week that he will not be any sort of tool for the union, and probably quite the opposite.
I’m guardedly optimistic about the opportunity he presents the city to move forward. I’ve basically been told by most of the council that four on an engine is not an option at this point. There are legitimate concerns about the infrastructure in the stations, which is part of a more general infrastructure problem in the city – ironically brought on in part by the disproportionate and large increase in compensation over the last decade.
The hiring of a permanent and full time chief marks the first time since 2010, when Rose Conroy abruptly retired, that Davis will be under the leadership of such an individual. And it again marks a critical turning point.
The last piece of this circle was to put the firefighters under contract for the first time since their contract expired in July 2012. That’s more than five years.
Is this an ideal contract from a fiscal perspective? No. It is not horrible, however, as it only increases costs by $170,000 and the city set this precedent by granting a COLA (Cost-of-Living Adjustment) to five other bargaining units in December 2015. But for those concerned about costs and the fact that the city has an ongoing $8 to $10 million (and probably higher) shortfall, they will not be satisfied.
There are many people who believe we needed another round of cuts for the employee groups before going the tax route. Those people will be unhappy with this contract.
Reading between the lines, Mayor Robb Davis was not thrilled with this agreement either.
As Robb Davis put it in his public statement in the press release, “This agreement rectifies some, frankly, poorly conceived benefits of past contracts, and adds brakes on future medical costs. It restores past salary cuts, requires increased PERS contributions. It provides a COLA but balances that with increased employee contributions to a medical trust fund. In the end, it is expected to cost the City more.”
But at the same time, he said “it sets the stage for important cost sharing going forward that we believe has the potential to keep costs in check. Because the City cannot impose these items we arrived at them through challenging negotiations that took time. I believe we have a stronger foundation for future negotiations than we had in the past with key issues corrected that need correcting.”
But, make no mistake, this is not a good deal for the community.
Instead, it attempts to allow us to move on from, frankly, a whole series of bad decisions and worse contracts.
We can go back to the decision to put four on an engine, which the fire chief clearly would like to revisit, look at 3 percent at 50, look at the 36 percent pay increase from 2004 to 2009, and end it with the 2009 contract that failed to move the ball forward.
When the council became serious about budget reform was the time of the 2012 MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding), and that’s when the firefighters’ union refused to play ball.
So, from the perspective of reforms this is a compromise and a bad one at that. The council majority clearly wanted labor peace and reformers to feel like they got something by getting rid of bad elements of past contracts.
Defenders of the agreement note that the 3 percent pay increase is offset by give backs on pensions. It’s not a pure tradeoff, as the costs still increase slightly, but $170,000 is not going to break the bank – but it is also not going to solve our fiscal dilemma.
This was the cost of getting the firefighters under contract and moving on from a nearly decade-long battle between city hall and the firefighters’ union.
Was it worth it? Like the new chief, the jury is still out on this. But the firefighters now have a chance to show they can be part of the community, rather than working as they did for so long to control the political landscape. The ball is now in their court.
—David M. Greenwald reporting