Grand jury says Coastside fire districts should merge and outsource services


Posted by on Mon, July 10, 2006

The San Mateo County Grand Jury, in a report issued Monday, says that it is necessary for the Point Montara Fire Protection District and Half Moon Bay Fire Protection district to merge, and to outsource their fire services to another agency, [index of report pdf’s] before the end of 2006.

A culture of strife has existed in the HMBFPD for at least the past six years. During this time HMBFPD has been involved in five lawsuits with current or former employees; has so far paid $707,595 in settlements and has spent $516,280 on legal expenses.  In addition, twenty-eight firefighters have retired or left HMBFPD to seek employment elsewhere, the fire chief has retired, and both a division chief and the fire inspector have quit.

In its opening pages, the grand jury report quotes a story from Coastsider: Interim Fire Chief condemns deficiencies, recommends contracting out fire service. The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury is an independent investigative body created by the California State Constitution. Composed of nineteen citizens, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury serves as a "watchdog for citizens of the county."


I have been attending all of the PMFPD regular meetings and some of the HMBFPD meetings in addition to unsuccessfully running for the PMFPD Board last November.  The Fire Board situation has been complex.  I am impressed with the Civil Grand Jury’s ability to get at the crux issues, state them succinctly and form correct conlusions.

The PMFPD and HMBFPD Boards and the employees of HMBFPD have through their actions painted themselves into a corner where there are now few options.  I am happy to see that Grand Jury has crushed the final fantasy of rebuilding the HMBFPD and having another battle to see what cast of characters controls it.

Only CDF and City of San Mateo Fire Department bid on the RFP.  North County Fire Authority(NCFA) may be interested in providing some services or entertaining inclusion in their Joint Powers Authority(JPA) between Pacifica, Daly City and Brisbane.  It is curious that Chief Myers of NCFA said he only wanted to deal with a consolidated Coastside Fire.  PMFPD President MacKimmie had unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with for services in late 2004.  But, the labor rates for Bayside Fire Districts are higher than presently in HMBFPD.  PMFPD and HMBFPD may not be able to afford San Mateo’s rates, unless there is some creative offer from San Mateo.  The bids were in last week from CDF and San Mateo, but may or may not be public documents, yet.


The public needs to engage the two Fire District Boards and assure they take the Grand Jury report seriously and act on it.  The issue is not who is responsible but, where do we go from here.  The proposals from CDF and San Mateo need to be thoroughly considered and a choice made.  How do we make the best choice?  I suspect, consolidation will provide a higher level of service, because of economies of scale.  Both Districts can easily afford to contract separately with CDF to staff the engines but, there will most likely not be an around the clock operational Chief on the Coastside in that scenario.  If the two Districts combine, the scale is there to afford an around the clock or peak call time Operations Chief in the combined District.

I disagree with one minor point in the conclusions of the report. “Furthermore, subcontracting does not preclude the Board from reexamining this decision in future years.”  Given the cost and the geography, it will not be that easy to switch contractors or restaff a department at Bay Area labor rates.  Given only two agencies bid this time, even less would bid next time.  The current choice of contractors needs to be done carefully. For the Boards to change their mind in a few years, would be expensive.

I have been saying for years, even before Proposition H passed, that the coastside fire protection and EMS should be contracted out to San Mateo County Fire (CDF).

Sounds like that may finally come to pass. That is if we can persuade our two dis-functional boards to get their collective heads out of their collective asses.

JB

 

The facts:
The HMF Fire district WAS one of the most financially secure districts in the county until Jim Asche stepped in. Shorty after his back door appointment by the board at the time, things begun to go very wrong. The firefighters noticed several acts of unethical behavior and corrupt business practices being perpetrated by Mr. Asche and made several attempts to have it stopped through the proper channels. Unfortunately, Jm Asche was able to manipulate the information be given the board at the time and they were kept in the dark. Ultimately, the Firefighters had to go to the papers with the gruesome details of Jim Asches debauchery against the fire district. This caught the HMB boards attention but it also supported the PTM boards claim of mismanagement which the HMB board members could not accept due to ego problems. This set the stage for the ego and pride war between the to boards that has resulted in the total depletion of the HMB fire finacial reserves. The HMB board members, with the help of Jim Asche, used every bit of extra money the district had to cover-up all of Jim Asches legal problems, and poor management decisions so that the PTM fire board would not be proved correct in their accusations against the HMB board members. The sad thing about all this is the firefighters have been labeled the problem when all they did was try to have the issues addressed a long time ago before they ended up affecting the district they way it has. Jim Asche is off scott free basking in his huge retirement payroll. The board members that screwed things up are still poking their stupid heads into the mix. And the men who labored hard and under horrible working conditions to serve the great people on the coast are now being told to shut up and get out because CDF is taking over. The Irony!

The solution is not CDF. The REAL solution is for the county board of supervisors to take over HMB’s dis-functional fire Board, the firing of the Managers who cased the issues leading to the numerous lawsuits, and an effort towards county consolidation with a healthy fire agency other than CDF.
CDF is nothing more than a road-block towards a county fire district because none of the other fire agencies will ever let them walk in and take over their districts. San Mateo County is eventually going to have to copy the surrounding counties of Alameda and Santa Clara who have consolidated into strong districts. A countywide fire district is the solution to our problems and the other struggling fire districts in the county. This is HMB fire districts opportunity to help make that happen. Choosing CDF wil only postpone a county wide consolidated fire district and takes away local control.

Brent Smith,

Yor first paragraph describes strife which was promenently mentioned in the report along with some of the money you collected from your lawsuit.  We could debate who is responsible forever and not come to a conclusion.  My sense is that is what has been going on the last few years.  From my perspective, citizens stepped in, LAFCo stepped in and now, the Civil Grand Jury has stepped in.  There was a HMB Review article a couple of years ago that said you or your attorney may be taking some information to the Civil Grand Jury.  Whether you did or not, the report is in.

Let’s be very clear here about what is being suggested.  That is that the PMFPD and HMBFPD consolidate into Coastside Fire and contract with either The City of San Mateo Fire Department or CDF for Fire Services.  The Coastside Fire Board would continue to collect taxes and make decisions on how Fire Service was to be provided in the combined District.  (I know that is not what the red flyer making the rounds with the HMBFPD logo on it says.  But, someone is using the HMBFD logo to spread misinformation. I’d call that “ongoing strife”.)

If the Board contracts out Fire services, there will be less Board control with say CDF running operations compared to the present situation.  Based on you first paragraph, I’d guess CDF would be more professionally run and would give the Line Staff the recognition that you claim they haven’t gotten.  Or are you just admitting that as bad as the present situation is, it’s not as bad as working for CDF?

The Board of Supervisors(BOS)is going to be reluctant to step in and take control of a Special District that is in the black and operating above some minimum threshold.  But, for the moment, let’s assume they will listen to you.  The BOS would turn to County Fire.  Which is CDF under contract to San Mateo County. 

Most professionals I have talked to said, a County wide Fire Department is not possible, yet.  Where a District can’t sustain itself, JPA’s or mergers are being used.  There appears to be a “right size” now which is probably slightly larger than the proposed Coastside Fire.  A County wide Fire Department is just not feasible, at his point.  CDF currently runs Districts under contract with the Special Districts in San Mateo County and with the County itself for parts of the unincorporated County.  I don’t see how Coastside Fire being staffed by personnel under contract to CDF or San Mateo precludes the Coastside Fire Board from consolidating with other Districts in the future to move toward a County wide Fire Department.

I think it is time for the citizens on the Coastside to take the input that we requested from over the hill and act on it, here.

LAFCo and the Grand Jury have arrived at pretty much the same conclusion:  Merge the districts and contract for services. 

Currently the discussions between the 2 boards on how to consolidate are ongoing.  One point already agreed to by the 2 boards is to retain all current members and to appoint 1 more for a total of 9 members in the first joint fire protection district board.  I am concerned that this will result in longer meetings with less being done by the board placing more decisions in control of staff who are very likely unfamiliar with local concerns.  This will resultl in a dramatic loss of local control at a time when it will be very important to the long term viability of the new district. 

Clearly some are very concerned.  I recently saw a bright red flyer with the HMB FPD logo on it telling the public the district is “FOR SALE..TO THE LOWEST BIDDER…..YOUR SAFETY IS AT RISK.” [sic]

Baseless inflamatory rhetoric.  The agencies placing proposals to the districts have good safety records and high standards.  I would like to know who is posting this; there is no name attached to it. 

The LAFCo reports can be found at:

http://www.sanmateolafco.org/smc/department/home/0,,5526264_5530410_350167752,00.html

The summary is most quickly read in the resolution as the final report is 75 pages. 

Kathryn

Kathryn—The proposed scheme for getting from the 8 current board members to 5 is nothing but an incumbent protection plan.  I’ve said so multiple times at fire board meetings.  Otherwise, why not simply have only 1 seat up for re-election in the November 2007 election and then there will be 5 board members?  (To reset to the required 3/2 election cycle it would be necessary to have one of the seats in 2009 be a 2 year seat, but that’s a nit.)

“It’s unwise to cross a chasm in two leaps.”


Brent—Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over expecting the results to be different is the definition of insanity.  How many times was the district sued by firefighters trying to fix the same problem?  Perhaps those 4 lawsuits are a major reason why the District’s reserves are gone?  I will not defend management or the boards at this point, but your implication that the firefighters are blameless doesn’t hold water with me.  Do you want me to quote from Bonano’s report?  The FFs have done nothing apparent to deal with the problem FFs.  And a claim that there are no problem FFs won’t have any credibility.

The bottom line is that there’s plenty of blame to go around.  Also, there’s evidence that Asche’s predecessor wasn’t too good either.

As to the BoS stepping in and taking over, to my knowledge there is no legal authority to do so.  HMBFPD and PMFPD are “independent special districts.”  That means they basically answer only to their voters unless they do something illegal.

Brent:

So far we are on our third chief in less than a year. Obviously the chiefs are not the problem.

According to Pete Bonanno, the chief who succeded Asche, “while there are many shining stars in the work force, we have our share of firefighters who are unmotivated, disgruntled and well versed at throwing up roadblocks.”

Who do you suppose he’s talking about?

JB

Comments on the red Firefighter flyer:

The danger here is not selling out as the flyer suggests.  The danger is in acquiescing to some individuals that are behaving in a cowardly fashion refusing to identify themselves and appropriating the logo of the District for their selfish purposes.

This flyer uses the HMBFPD logo to make false statements about the District.  This is an example of unprofessional conduct by some unidentified individuals.  Ms. Mayne in one of her previous independent investigations of the Department said that this unprofessional behavior of Line Staff needed to be dealt with.  The current Line Staff is represented by a collective bargaining unit, The International Association of Fire Fighters(IAFF) Local 2400.  I don’t see their participation in this flyer.

Many in this community may not know that some of the Line Staff are grossing $170,000 per year with overtime.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the contract(Memorandum of Understanding) and look at the personnel costs in the month to month District accounting.  They are all public documents.  Recognize that there are some individuals that collected a lot of overtime due to the strife and have a vested interest in seeing it continue.

Despite Chief Hamilton’s extraordinary efforts to get operations stabilized, the level of service is far less than it was a year ago.  But, this has been triage on his part.  The operational capability is dangerously low, now.  Muddling through and hoping for cooperation is in fact dangerous, at this point, given the low operational capability.  It is important to get operations quickly into the hands of an organization with the Management structure and resource in place to provide and adequate level of service to the Coastside.

My wife and I recently moved to El Granada. As a retired Deputy Fire Chief/Fire Marshal from North County Fire Authority (Brisbane, Daly City, and Pacifica), I was heavily involved in the implementation of the Joint Powers Authority that put Brisbane, Daly City, and Pacifica under one administrative body, so I am keenly aware of the problems that can occur when a jurisdiction contracts for fire services.

It is only natural for the firefighters to view this option with skepticism and fear. It represents a great deal of change, a perceived loss of control, and the unknown, all of which is uncomfortable and scary. But what is clear is that the call for a change is supported by the governing bodies and many in the community.

CDF and the City of San Mateo Fire Department have put forth proposals to contract their services. Choosing the contracting agency is a very important decision that must be weighed carefully.

I think CDF’s proposal brings some additional problems into the mix. They belong to a different union than our current firefighters, their rank structure is different, their senior staff can change due to promotions throughout the state, and as a large state bureaucracy they will be less flexible in responding to changing local needs. We need to remember that we are trying to solve some existing problems, not introduce new ones.

The San Mateo Fire Department most closely resembles our own. They belong to the same union, their rank structure is similar, their senior staff is stable, they have extensive experience dealing with local city governments, and they are currently providing some fire prevention services to the District.

Whichever agency is chosen, it must have a proven track record that demonstrates that it can accomplish what is says it can do in a measurable way. For example, the lack of comprehensive fire prevention and education programs was citied in Chief Bonano’s report as a major problem facing the District. The new agency should be able to prove that it currently completes 100% of its state mandated inspections on an annual basis. It should be able to prove that it is delivering public education programs to the community on a regular basis. If the agency does not meet these benchmarks for the communities it currently serves, it is not likely to meet them as a contractor.

The board needs to enlist the existing staff to help solve these problems. What happened in the past cannot be changed, but by working together as a team the HMBFPD can be the fire department that the community deserves.

Dave Dewey
Deputy Fire Chief/Fire Marshal (Retired)
North County Fire Authority

Wow!

$170,000.00 per year.

Now I know why the firefighters don’t want our fire and EMS service contracted out.

Too bad, they’re killing the goose who lays the golden eggs. (us, the tax payers)

Now they seem to be mad as hell. I guess I would be too.

JB

  To work 170,000$ in one year on a Half Moon Bay firefighters salary one would have to average around 96 hours a week for a whole year. I dont know about you but I would have hard time being away from my family for that long a time. Also Half Moon Bay firefighters are the 3rd lowest in the county in pay (also public records) . I also know they have been understaffed for a long time and the firefighters union has been asking for increased staffing levels for years now.

Mark Redman
Montara

Mark:

I’d do it tomorrow. How much time do they spend asleep?

How many tax paying coastsiders make $170,000.00 per year.

I don’t make $170,000.00 per year and none of my tax paying friends friends do.

JB

Maybe we should let the firefighters union run the fire district. (some say they do already)

Mark Redman,

I said “Line Staff” that includes Fire Fighters, Fire Fighter Paramedics, Captains and Captain Paramedics.

The following numbers are from the 2004 MOU: Shift is 24 hours.  Six day cycle is 2 shifts back to back with 4 days off.  That’s roughly 10 full 24 hour days per month on shift and 20 days off.

Base salary for a Fire Fighter Paramedic top step is $83,812.  Overtime shift is $1,036.

Base salary for a Captain top step is $90,588.  Overtime shift is $1,120.

Base salary for a Captain Paramedic top step is $98,207. Overtime shift is $1,214.

Let’s calculate how many overtime days per calender month it would take to reach a gross of $170,000 per year.

(($170,000 - base salary/year)/Overtime per/24 hour shift/12 months)

Fire Fighter Paramedic ($170.000 - $83,812)/ $1036 / 12 = 7 days/month

Captain ($170.000 - $90,588)/ $1,120 / 12 = 6 days/month

Captain Paramedic($170.000 - $98,207)/ $1,214 / 12 = 5 days/month

In evaluating base salary and comparing it to other Departments, there are many factors, like typical overtime, training incentives, advancement opportunities and call volume.

From my observations at the meetings there have been times where the Shop Stewards complained about the excess overtime and there were other times like when Chief Asche arranged for outside coverage from other Departments to relieve the overtime situation and was turned down.

Like I said 7 days extra a month works out to be about 96 hours a week. 7 overtime days = 168 hours. 168 divided by 4 weeks equals 42 extra hours a week on top of their 56 hour weeks equals 98 hour weeks. 

Overtime is in addition to the 56 hour work week.  You are right there are many factors in comparing salaries. They call that total compensation- Half Moon Bay is bottom 3 in total compensation. If you want to argue about the merits of firefighting and if they are worth a fair hourly wage then that is one thing. I have friends whom are policemen and firemen they are very close in pay.  I am an electrician and I am close in pay as well as my plummer friends.

JB if there was this golden goose you are talking about then why has there been a such a huge turn over. I have friends who have left there and it had nothing to do with getting too much money. I have some phone #‘s if you would like to call them yourself and find out. Do some research and see how much time they sleep instead of throwing out your vauge perception. Go down to the firehouse do some ride alongs and then see how you are feeliing after a 96 hour shift. My brother inlaw is a fireman and he is very tired on his first day off and sleeps most of it. Not to mention the stressful nature of their business.

Vince I beg you to tell me when Chief Asche and the board ever agreed to arrange outside coverage. I belive that to be completely false. The real story behind the overtime goes back years. Most recently though it the boards who argued over consolidation and would not hire enough people. It is not the firefighters fault if there is too much overtime. The board sets the policies. That is like blaming the children for eating too much cake.

Vince you are right. The blame game gets us no where. Mr. Warren is right too, all parties share in some responsibility.
The question is where do we go from here? I think the community needs to support the firefighters or chiefs or board members (where ever solid leadership is found) in finding solutions.  I belive to attract and keep these leaders though, we must pay what the other departments pay.

Mark Redman,

Mark Redman wrote:

>Like I said 7 days extra a month works out to be about 96 hours a week.

I said in my post on the red flyer “Line Staff”.  What you computed is true for Firefighter and Firefighter/Paramedics.  It is not true for Captains or Captain/Paramedics.  Captains and Captain/Paramedics are Line Staff.  Please read my previous post again.  It is confusing to talk in terms of weeks and hours.  The Line Staff works a normal cycle of two days on and four days off. That is not most peoples definition of a week. It is much cleared to talk in terms of days worked and days off.

Mark Redman wrote:

>Vince I beg you to tell me when Chief Asche and the board ever
>agreed to arrange outside coverage. I belive that to be completely
>false.

I’m not clear what you mean in these two sentences.  I did not say anything about the Board.  I was speaking about the Line Staff and
Chief Asche.  I wrote in my previous post, “From my observations at the meetings there have been times where the Shop Stewards complained about the excess overtime and there were other times like when Chief Asche arranged for outside coverage from other Departments to relieve the overtime situation and was turned down.”  I stand by what I said.

As far as the rest of your statements, I have no comment.

Mark:

We have firefighters who would rather go to court than go to a fire.

Why “must” we pay what other departments pay? We should pay what we can afford. That’s one of the problems here. The firefighters want max pay with no work.

I think it would be fair to compare our pay with CDF or the pay at San Mateo Highlands for example.

I think it’s past time for the boards to start considering the interests of the tax paying public.

JB