When Mayor Dan Wolk at last week’s city council meeting called for a “check-in to see what’s happening on the merger front,” he was re-opening a can of worms on the firefighter issue.
The city and university had moved down the road to merger once before, only to be stopped cold by the compensation gap between the City of Davis and UC Davis fire departments.
The City and UC Davis had explored a merger back in 2010, however, that process was paused in January 2012. Then UC Davis Vice Chancellor John Meyer wrote to then-City Manager Steve Pinkerton, “Both of our agencies remain committed to a unified fire department to serve our shared community. However, I believe that we have reached a point of limited progress and that, for a variety of reasons, most particularly the City’s pending negotiations with its firefighters, we should pause this process as described below and then reconvene in the 2012-13 fiscal year.”
This issue of the compensation gap was critical to that decision.
“I am deeply concerned about the significant compensation disparity highlighted in the CityGate report,” Vice Chancellor Meyer wrote. “The report suggests that UC Davis will increase its compensation in support of consolidation efforts. I believe such action would not be sustainable by UC Davis and should not be assumed in future planning.”
A records request reveals to the Vanguard that the gap remains sizable – about 30 percent across the board.
Recall that for Davis firefighters, almost all are Firefighter II or higher. That represents a $40,000-plus gap or about 31 percent.
As the Vanguard has reported numerous times in the past, Davis firefighters not only are the highest paid in the city, they are some of the highest paid among comparable cities.
In 2013, another Vanguard analysis found that “Davis Firefighters Near Top in Compensation, Police Near Bottom.” The analysis found that Davis firefighters at the time made 5.1 percent above mean on salary, and 7.4 percent above mean on total compensation. Only the city of Fairfield, among comparable cities, paid more in total compensation for fire (and only by a narrow margin).
Meanwhile, UC Davis ranked in 2013 only slightly below the mean in both salary and total compensation.
Where does this analysis leave us? As we reported last week, while some have suggested to the Vanguard that the compensation gap would again make a full merger impractical, others believe it could be dealt with by freezing City of Davis fire compensation until the gap dissipates.
The Vanguard has learned that, behind the scenes, Davis Professional Firefighters Association President Bobby Weist is pushing for the full merger as a means to reassert control over the process. The city is looking to remodel the central fire station and potentially move the leadership downtown when that remodel is completed.
There is additional thinking that the possible failure of a merger could lead to a reassessment of the entire shared management arrangement. While many of the reforms passed in 2013 have been controversial, the shared management agreement and the managing of the two departments under UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht has been the focal point of dissension from union leadership.
In 2013, when the city was implementing fire reforms, the union fought hard against both shared management with the university as well as a reduction in staffing. The council, while unanimously approving the imposition of last, best and final offer, was split on these other two issues, with 3-2 votes in favor (Brett Lee and Rochelle Swanson were joined by then-Mayor Joe Krovoza) while Dan Wolk and Lucas Frerichs were in strong opposition (although Dan Wolk flipped to opposition following a letter from a group of elected officials opposing shared management that included his mother, Senator Lois Wolk).
In November 2013, Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Supervisors Don Saylor and Jim Provenza and former Supervisor Helen Thomson wrote a letter to the Davis City Council opposing the agreement for shared management.
The letter argued, “We believe that governance of public safety is and must remain a core function of the elected City Council of Davis. Community oversight and accountability is an important element of municipal services.”
They wrote, “We urge the Davis City Council to take another look at the serious long-range consequences of this proposal before contracting out any of these core municipal functions. There is a key difference between sharing or coordinating services and merging governance with the constitutionally separate and unelected Regents and Chancellor.”
“This proposed action would place a well-established and effective municipal service within an entity whose primary mission is higher education and research, not public safety,” the letter continued. “This could easily result in a lessening of service and response for the residents of the Davis community and the surrounding areas historically served by the Davis Fire Department. We deeply appreciate the presence of the UC Davis campus and respect the leadership of the campus. Unified operations and efficiencies are appropriate considerations, but should not come with loss of community accountability.”
Throughout 2014, there were signs of trouble ahead. Union president Bobby Weist had attempted to enlist the statewide union to aid their cause, going so far as to propose legislation to prohibit such a merger.
When the city council hired Dirk Brazil in late 2014, it was unclear which direction the city would go.
However, data emerging in 2014 showed that the reforms, rather than making residents less safe, have actually greatly improved safety in the city. From September 2012 until August 2013, in a typical month Station 32 (west Davis) and Station 33 (south Davis, covering the eastern and southern portions of the city) had essentially been uncovered between 20 and 40 times per month.
That means that areas of west and east Davis, if they had an emergency, were looking at far longer before an engine that had been moved to the central fire station on Fifth and E Street could travel back into the areas on the eastern and western portions of the town.
In critical situations people might have to wait three, four, or five extra minutes. This wasn’t just a few times per month, this was daily for long periods of time during the day.
With the changes, the number of “move and cover assignments” has fallen to, in most cases, less than five times a month in total.
The question remains, with full merger not being a realistic option, where does this head? The clock is moving in one respect – if the council fails to make changes by the end of June, the agreement with UC Davis will automatically renew through the end of 2017. Sources the Vanguard spoke with are downplaying the chance for any type of real reversal, citing a lack of three votes as well as electoral consideration.
However, it is clear that there is maneuvering behind the scenes to see if any traction can be reached on this.
—David M. Greenwald reporting