Fire Union’s Squabble With City Goes Public

The Chamber of Commerce’s annual Police and Fire Appreciation Luncheon is typically a benign, folksy gathering, providing residents and business owners an opportunity to express their thanks to a police officer and firefighter for their service to the community.
The tone and the tension were ratcheted up sharply last week, however, when Fire Department honoree Nathan Foth, who doubles as president of the union that represents San Marino’s firefighters, chose the occasion to take the city to task for proposed cuts in the department’s operating budget. Foth aimed the brunt of his attack at City Manager John Schaefer, who has been negotiating with the union over the past six months and was in attendance at the luncheon.
As part of the negotiations, the City Council is seeking to find ways to trim a Fire Department budget that has risen from $4.4 million in fiscal year 2013-14 to $5.4 million in 2014-15 to $6.1 million for the current fiscal year. In an effort to rein in costs, the council has proposed that the San Marino Fire Department operate at times with three firefighters on an engine rather than the current staffing of four.
Foth said he felt this would be insufficient for optimal safety of the community, adding, “This is not a personal attack on the city manager. This is about standing up for what I feel is the right thing to do.”
Mayor Eugene Sun, who was standing behind Foth on the San Marino Center stage during the firefighter’s remarks, stepped to the microphone immediately after Foth finished.
The council has been discussing the Fire Department budget in closed sessions, and the contract negotiations between the union and Schaefer had been confidential. Until now.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Sun said, “but since Nathan let the cat out of the bag, that’s why I had to say something. We made an offer to the firefighters’ union to reduce from four firefighters to three firefighters, based on surrounding cities offering a high quality of service [with three]. We as a City Council are solidly behind our city manager; he is doing the bidding of the City Council.”
The council, after seeing that the city spent $366,771 in overtime in fiscal year 2014-15, sought to lower that to $232,890 in the current year, Schaefer said.
An overtime shift costs $1,000 per day, and that accounts for the fourth firefighter on San Marino’s engine when it goes out on a call. (It is staffed with a captain, an engineer to drive and two firefighter/paramedics).
“The council didn’t say three guys on the engine all the time,” Schaefer said. “The council wants a reduction of $130,000.”
That would mean the engine would have four firefighters on it nearly two-thirds of the time.
Foth urged luncheon attendees to contact City Council members and Schaefer on the matter.
Sun responded, “If anything, we are happy to hear from you to see what you think of it. If you say maybe four firefighters is better than three, I agree. But how about five firefighters is better than four? Of course. So we have to draw a line. If we think three firefighters on the engine is a reasonable compromise, we’ll do it. Right now, it is an impasse. We made an offer, the firefighters’ union declined. So, with the impasse, we may go through arbitration, and we’ll see what happens.”
The squabble went public just six weeks before San Marino voters will go to the polls to decide whether to pass a public safety parcel tax. It requires a two-thirds majority to pass, and it accounts for 23% of the city’s combined police and fire budget.
The city conducted a survey of 24 nearby fire departments and found that 14 of them run three firefighters on an engine.
“It’s not risk elimination,” Schaefer said. “What the council is saying is, we get that this isn’t the same service as four, but we have to manage these tax dollars, and this gives us a reasonable balance. A lot of cities do it. It’s not unsafe. … We’re looking for that fine balance between saving money and providing satisfactory service.”
San Marino is already saving about $250,000 per year through a shared fire command with San Gabriel and South Pasadena, instituted last year.
Foth said at the end of his remarks, “If I took away any of the spirit of what this ceremony was supposed to be by saying what I said, I apologize. It was not my intent. I just felt obligated to say something.”

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