In a move likely to reverberate in many ways in the city, on Wednesday UC Davis announced they have informed the city of Davis that they will end the agreement for shared management of the two fire departments. UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht has led both departments since January 2014, following a series of reforms by the city of Davis in fire staffing and other practices.
Kelly Ratliff, UC Davis’ interim lead for finance, operations and administration, gave formal notice of the decision to end the agreement in a letter to City Manager Dirk Brazil dated February 1, 2017.
The release from the university indicates that officials “hope that the city will continue to collaborate on a number of service delivery improvements that were implemented under the shared management agreement. There are many examples that have made our shared communities safer such as a ‘dropped boundary’ approach to emergency response using all resources in the community, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries, to get firefighters to emergencies as quickly as possible.”
“We are grateful to Chief Trauernicht and the staff of both departments for their hard work, and we are committed to maintaining a high level of service in our shared community,” Kelly Ratliff said.
Despite a number of successes, the university cited that “significant challenges have remained in managing two different fire departments with different cultures under single leadership.” The university writes, “Ultimately, university officials concluded that the future success of each department would be better served under separate management.”
In addition, a recent audit finding by CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) on retirement contributions for shared employees further complicates the arrangement.
In the letter, the university wrote, “The recently published ruling by CALPERS about retirement contributions for shared management employees is of great concern. Further, as we have discussed on many occasions, differences in organizational cultures present material challenges that affect continued forward progress towards our joint vision. We believe that the success of both fire departments requires moving forward under independent management at this time.”
Kelly Ratliff said that “the campus is looking forward to collaborating with the city to replace the current shared management arrangement with a cooperative service delivery agreement to lay the framework for a smooth transition to independent management as soon as practically possible, while keeping the best of what has been accomplished to date.”
From the city’s end, the news was greeted with disappointment.
“The University has their reasons for terminating the agreement,” City Manager Dirk Brazil said in a comment to the Vanguard via text message. “I’m disappointed but respect their position.”
He told the Vanguard, “We will move on, ideally keeping in place those elements that have become common practices – dropped boundaries, combined training, etc. – continuing to collaborate with UCD as the need arises. From a public service perspective, no one should notice a change. Davis firefighters are real pros and there will be no lapse in service.”
He added, “My immediate goal is to quickly begin a process to put a Davis Fire Chief in place.”
Mayor Robb Davis also expressed disappointment.
“I am very disappointed in the decision the University has made in this regard, though I respect their willingness to launch into this endeavor with us in the first place, and am glad that the boundary drop and shared training are to continue,” he said.
The mayor added, “In this time of fiscal challenges it had been my hope that shared services of this nature would provide tangible cost reductions. I saw this one as a model. I still believe that these types of shared services are possible and will continue to explore all options to cut costs.”
He told the Vanguard he will have additional comments “in the coming days.”
The history of shared management proved to be fairly short and contentious from the start. Following a series of reforms including fire staffing changes and boundary drop in 2013, the council voted 3-2 to implement the agreement which placed then-UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht in charge of both departments.
In November of 2013, Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Supervisors Don Saylor and Jim Provenza, and former Supervisor Helen Thomson wrote a letter opposing the City of Davis-UC Davis agreement for shared management services between the City of Davis and UC Davis Fire Department.
The Davis firefighters’ union quickly moved to do everything it could to undermine the agreement.
Ultimately, two issues sank the shared fire management between the city and university.
Back in 2012 when the city and university considered a merger, then-Vice Chancellor John Meyer put a pause on the arrangement, citing what he called a “significant compensation disparity” as the culprit.
“I am deeply concerned about the significant compensation disparity highlighted in the CityGate report,” he 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.”
The shared management initially allowed the two entities to ignore the huge pay gap, but changes to CalPERS appears to have thwarted that.
While that issue may have been overcome, the fact that the Davis firefighters never accepted the leadership of the university is at the root of the “differences in organizational cultures” and probably played a much larger role in the university decision to pull out from the agreement.
Now the city will be looking to hire a new chief, and a battle may well ensue for the leadership of the fire department.
—David M. Greenwald reporting