An angry contingent of firefighters stormed City Hall last week, upset that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors would “cut $82 million” out of the Police, Fire and Sheriff Departments. That number, however, is misleading – because it’s what the Supervisors want to take out of a budget proposal for next year that gives all three agencies a raise. The real target for the Fire Department from current funding levels is $15 million. Which should not be hard to do, given that 64 firefighters in the top brass make more than $150,000 a year. The Firefighters Union will have to make concessions (like all other City workers have done), but Beyond Chron has identified at least $8.25 million in cuts to the Department that don’t require amending their contract. These target unnecessary spending, and many were recommended in prior City reports that Gavin Newsom ignored. Starting with these savings can encourage firefighters to support changes that will get us to $15 million – without jeopardizing public safety.

Despite having 1,300 fewer employees, the San Francisco Fire Department spends more on overtime ($23 million) than the Police Department ($18 million.) This is just one example of their fiscal mismanagement, while Mayor Newsom gives them a raise and imposes deep cuts to health and human services. If the firefighters’ conduct from last week is any sign of future negotiations, do not expect them to support changes – unless the Supervisors can prove they are fair and reasonable when proposing cuts. Here are some proposals that meet the rank-and-file firefighters more than halfway:

TRIMMING THE TOP-LEVEL BRASS

There are 64.3 positions in the Fire Department that pay more than $150,000 – in a hierarchy that is bloated and top-heavy. Some of these jobs can be eliminated, while others can take a modest pay cut that would still keep them well compensated.

Downsize the Battalion Chiefs

Battalion Chiefs are responsible for supervising a battalion, which is anywhere from four to six fire stations. There are 38.8 of them, each making over $160,000 a year. As a comparison, laying off one Battalion Chief could pay for three attorneys who give free legal defense for low-income tenants facing an Ellis Act eviction. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic (which publishes Beyond Chron) is the only place in San Francisco where tenants can get representation, but is losing its $125,000 grant in budget cuts.

The Fire Department has nine battalions, and the union contract requires that each one be staffed with a Battalion Chief at all times. One Battalion Chief is a Planning and Research Manager who does not supervise a battalion, and can be eliminated. In fact, a report by the Board’s Budget Analyst recommended in 2002 (when Gavin Newsom was still a Supervisor) to do just that. Why did Mayor Newsom never cut this position?

Moreover, the City could lay off another 10 Battalion Chiefs and satisfy the staffing minimum – leaving each battalion with three chiefs. The Fire Department could also consolidate battalions, allowing for more positions to be eliminated without opening the union contract. This is doable if we close a few fire stations (more on that later.)

Savings from laying off eleven Battalion Chiefs: $1.772 million

Cut Salaries of High-Level Management

The Fire Department has 7.5 Assistant Chiefs, each of whom make $186,206. These are also union positions, and the contract requires one for each Division at all times. I’m not sure if we can downsize staff without re-opening their contract. But when the City re-negotiates union salaries, Assistant Chiefs should be one of the first targets.

The Department also has 5 Assistant Deputy Chiefs, 2 Deputy Chiefs and a Fire Chief – none of whom are covered by the Firefighters’ Union contract. Why do we need a Deputy Chief (let alone two) making $240,900 – when each Division has at least one Assistant Chief or Assistant Deputy Chief? Let’s eliminate one layer of bureaucracy.

Next, cut all the salaries of top management by ten percent. The Assistant Deputy Chiefs would still make $188,000 a year, and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White would get paid $251,000 – roughly the same salary as the Mayor. The Department also has a public relations flak who makes $117,562 – or more than four of the five people in Newsom’s press office (only Nathan Ballard makes more.) Cut his or her salary by ten percent.

Savings from laying off 2 Deputy Chiefs and 10% off management salaries: $600,000

FOLLOW THE CONTROLLER’S 2004 REPORT

In 2004, City Controller Ed Harrington issued a report on the Fire Department that, among other things, found that 61% of all emergency calls are medical – and 72% of the rest did not involve an actual fire. The report also recommended consolidating fire stations and trucks – which have not happened, and don’t require re-opening the union contract. Mayor Newsom negotiated a favorable deal with the Firefighters’ Union in 2007 (for his re-election), but did not insist on any of these proposals.

“Rolling Brownouts” of Fire Stations

San Francisco has 42 firehouses – in a 49 square-mile city. The Controller’s Report identified five stations with less than four emergency responses a day. Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White spoke out against “rolling brownouts” at last week’s Budget & Finance Committee – and presented data from four stations that shutting them down would result in slower response time. Controller Ben Rosenfield, however, countered that the increase was marginal – and data from all 42 stations would be more helpful.

In 2005, voters passed Proposition F – a measure against “rolling brownouts” – after the Firefighters’ Union ran an expensive campaign with little organized opposition. But Prop F was a budget ordinance (not a Charter Amendment), so was only legally enforceable for a year. Now that we are in a severe fiscal crisis, it makes sense to shut down stations on a “rolling” basis – in a way that still keeps response time low.

The Board’s Budget Analyst recommends closing one station, or temporarily shutting down three on a “rolling” basis. Potential savings: $2.626 million

One Less Fire Truck

The 2004 Controller’s Report also found that San Francisco has more fire trucks per capita than other cities. We could eliminate one fire truck, and still be above average. Fire trucks require more staff than do fire engines or medic units (which the union contract prevents from altering), but they have a lower workload than the other two.

The Board’s Budget Analyst recommends closing one truck, or temporarily reducing three on a “rolling” basis. Potential savings: $3.257 million.

RE-OPENING THE UNION CONTRACT

The above recommendations would save the Fire Department $8.25 million, or 55% of what the Supervisors want to cut – as a means of “sharing the pain.” More savings, however, will probably require the Firefighters’ Union to make concessions in their contract – like all other City employees have done. Meeting the union more than halfway indicates good faith, but the Board of Supervisors should prioritize what they want the union to agree to. First on that list should be cutting the number (and a 10% pay cut) of Assistant Fire Chiefs, who make $186,206. Other priorities include:

Reduce Staffing Minimums:

As the 2004 Controller’s Report said, fire trucks are expensive and wasteful. The union contract requires all fire trucks to have at least one officer (a Lieutenant or Captain) and four firefighters. One less firefighter on three trucks would save $2.2 million. Applying this to all trucks would save more.

The union contract also requires five Incident Support Specialists to be on staff at all times. These are administrative assistants to the Battalion Chiefs, and the Department is budgeted to have 21.5 of them. But there are fewer emergency calls at night than during the day. Reducing the number from five to three between 9:00 pm. and 9:00 a.m. (in order to more accurately reflect the need) would save the City $668,000.

Even without looking at salaries of rank-and-file members, the Firefighters’ Union contract can be changed to save at least $2.86 million. With the savings identified above, that gives us less than $4 million in cuts to attain $15 million.

Re-Negotiate Firefighter Salaries

The Mayor’s proposal raises the Fire Department’s salary budget by $8.96 million. That figure is incredible when you consider that we’re not increasing the number of firefighters, eleven civilian jobs were eliminated in mid-year cuts, and five more are planned for the chopping block. In other words, the contract Newsom signed in 2007 with the Firefighters’ Union to secure his re-election will cost the City $10.23 million in raises this year alone.

The firefighters are quick to say they were the only City employee union last year to make wage concessions in their union contracts. But whatever they agreed in “give backs,” they still got a 7% raise in 2007, a 4% raise in 2008, a 5% raise in 2009, a 6% raise in July 2010 and a 6.5% raise in December 2010. Meanwhile, SEIU workers have agreed to give up paid holidays, and non-profits are getting no raises.

The Supervisors hope to take $15 million out of the Fire Department budget, or $23 million of what the Mayor has proposed. With $11 million in savings identified that don’t affect the salaries of rank-and-file firefighters, that means $12 million in “give backs.” Because the firefighters currently stand to get over $10.23 million in raises this year, we’re talking a collective total of $1.77 million in pay cuts. With a salary budget of $205 million, that comes down to less than 1% of each worker’s salary.

The starting annual salary for a San Francisco firefighter is over $70,000. Compare that statistic with firefighters in other major cities, and the contrast is staggering. Even New York, which has a higher cost of living, pays a new recruit less than $41,000. Out of 15 Bay Area cities, our firefighters have the 3rd highest average salaries (at $102,495) and the lowest average workweek (48.7 hours.) Clearly, they can afford to give back a little in their contract.

After the Firefighters Union made their presence known at City Hall last week, the Board of Supervisors proceeded with their meeting – which included a long public hearing on proposed cuts to health and human services. Only one firefighter bothered to stick around, and patiently wait for his turn at the microphone. When he got up, he said: “I would rather take money out of my pocket than to see a firehouse closed or a union brother lose his job.” Hopefully, the union leadership will listen to the rank-and-file.