My View: Agreement with Fire Was Necessary to Move Forward

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Howard P

    Unions tend to exploit ‘public sentiment’…

    Firefighters and Police have historically been “the heroes who risk their lives everyday!”

    In Davis, only one fatality that might have been in the line of duty in PD… don’t know of one in Fire… only Fire has a true “union”…

    PW field folk are as much at risk for work-related injuries/deaths… but they get ‘last place’ as to compensation.  They only make sure that there is water to fight fires, but also to drink and make wastes go away.  If injured/killed on the job, they (or survivors) have far less benefits, by law, than Fire/Police.

    When the teachers’ union wants more, “it’s for the kids!”.

    It is what it is.  And yes, I am distrustful of unions… except the historical changes that some of them made, like the UFW union…

    A big win for the FF’s… locking in past decisions, increasing their pensionable income, and ‘ensuring’ that all employees get roll-backs (if that were to be done) if ‘they’ get any roll-backs… masterful…



    1. Jim Hoch

      The gardeners are doing better than the teachers in many cases



      Valente Lavalle



      Ruben Olivares



      John Guzman



      Jake Krezman



      Joaquin Barcenas Ugalde



      Douglas Caluya



      Stephen Dalton



      Michael Dascomb



      1. Howard P

        VL… Salary= $51,300 for 12 months of work (you got your #’s from Transparent California, right?)

        DJUSD teacher (9 months of work)… (~ 185 instructional days)

        You must have an interesting perspective in giving specific names, probably knowing DJUSD teachers appear to be shielded from similar disclosures.  Not even by classification, much less name…

        DJUSD seems to be flying below TC’s radar, where we could compare salaries and benefits… but am pretty sure you knew that…

        1. Howard P

          Compounding the drift… unlike Hoch, individuals were not named… so that’s a little better…

          The VG may want to consider the appropriateness of posts where non-‘public figures’ compensation #’s are listed by employee name.  Unless they (the poster) post their own…

          Note the use of the term “gardener” by Mr Hoch… obviously meant to belittle…

          Mr Hoch used total comp #’s… whoever posted the teacher information conveniently only showed salary… not including benefits including med & DJUSD/State STRS contributions on  employees’ behalf… Hoch showed total comp, including med/dental and PERS contributions… but deliberately did not label it as such… implying it was just salary… a ‘teaching moment'(?)…

          Back to the topic… FF contract…

        2. Jim Hoch

          The names are public record and are discoverable by anyone who has heard of google. Note that David also uses the names of actual city employees.

          It is curious that DJU is not in there and I’m not sure why. Woodland is and there are large numbers of Woodland teachers making less than the people cutting the grass in Davis.  The do have a shorter calendar though.

  2. Tia Will


    I am distrustful of unions”

    I am not sure why you are any more distrustful of unions than you are say of city management, or private employers, or corporations. Each group is working in promotion of their own advantage. Each is composed of human beings who will use terms & slogans which they feel will influence constituents towards their position. This is what we have created by adopting a competition based society. Every system has its own pros and cons, but I fail to see why one group of self advocates should be singled out as more untrustworthy than another.

    1. Howard P

      Maybe you’d understand my position more if you, or close family members (my case, as I have never belonged to a “union”, as it exists for the firefighters and teachers) were essentially forced to contribute to unions… if not, feel free to disagree.  I have my reasons… as I’ve outlined (sometimes in detail) several times over the years… let’s leave it at that.

  3. Tia Will

    Our life experiences have led us to different conclusions. Without adequate protections for survivors either ensured by the government or through union contracts, a “right to work” without union representation can equal the right to extreme hardship when a sole breadwinner dies as my mother, sister and I discovered when my father died.  Again, I do not see one group as inherently more culpable than another. We have a non compassionate system that is willing to let our most vulnerable members suffer.

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