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Letter: Measure Y, Piedmont Fire Department

Michael Rancer, former chair of the Municipal Tax Review Committee, writes about the comparatively high costs and staffing of the Piedmont Fire Department.

Editor:

Backers of Measure Y try to scare voters into supporting the parcel tax by claiming that loss of the tax threatens critical public safety services, especially the fire department. So it’s worth asking the question, “How do Piedmont fire department staffing and costs compare with similar small, affluent cities?” Not favorably, is the short answer.  

In its report to the Council last year, MTRC prepared summary budget comparisons with several cities. We have updated the information to currently available budgets. For fire protection, the comparable cities (those with their own fire departments, not consolidated with other jurisdictions) were Larkspur, Mill Valley, San Marino, Sausalito and Albany (fire chief shared with Piedmont).  Piedmont’s population is 10,667, compared to an average of 12,622 for the other cities. The most striking comparisons between our fire department and those of the other cities are as follows: [Editor's note: The charts are shown in the attached graphics. Mr. Rancer's letter is also attached as a PDF with the graphcis embedded.]

  • Size of fire department staff (reported as Full Time Equivalent Employees or FTEs)   
  • Fire department budget per dwelling in the city
  • Dwellings in the city per fire department FTE 

To summarize the links between the different bits of data, Piedmont is almost 20% smaller than the average of the other cities, yet its fire department has 26% more staff. As a result, fire protection in Piedmont costs 53% more per dwelling than the average, and the ratio of houses protected to fire department employees in Piedmont is only half of the other cities. The surplus cost for fire protection in Piedmont is nearly equal to the amount of revenue raised by the parcel tax.  

The fire department in Piedmont has two central functions: fire fighting and ambulance/paramedic services. The ambulance portion of the budget is about a quarter of the cost of each shift, and responding quickly to paramedic calls is one of the city’s highest priority services. However, in a city that experiences, on average, about one house fire per year, it is reasonable to question the premium paid for our overall fire department size.  

The city of Albany, with whom we share a fire chief, has almost twice Piedmont’s population and number of dwellings, and a larger area. Yet its fire budget is 15% less than Piedmont’s and the personnel count on a regular fire shift is 25% smaller.  The comparisons are striking and deserve detailed examination by our City Council.

For more information on the parcel tax issue, go to www.NoOnMeasureY.com.

Michael Rancer
Piedmont 

karen barbieri September 05, 2012 at 05:55 PM
I think that the following is what one needs to consider when deciding whether to vote for or against Measure Y. When my husband suffered a massive heart attack 12 years ago, his surgeon told me that his survival was primarily based on how quickly and how effectively the emergency response team treated him. The PFD, with a response time under three minutes and extremely well trained medical personnel saved his life against considerable odds. This story is not a "scare tactic" it's just a fact. Now I've heard from a small but vocal minority of residents who think that maybe we could get along without this tax, or maybe cuts could come from somewhere else, or just because some surrounding cities seem to get by without a municipal services tax we should too. I don't buy it, nor am I willing to experiment to see if our exemplary services won't suffer without this tax, because I believe they will. I will gladly pay $400 per year to secure the quality of service that we have had for the last three decades. What I'm seeing is that the foes of renewal all seem to have had some past personal disagreement with the city council, whether about Blair Park, or undergrounding, or the sewer tax, or whatever else they may not have liked. The Municipal Services Tax has nothing to do with these issues, and failing to renew this tax will hurt all of us. Opposing Measure Y because you didn't like the Blair Park plan or undergrounding is, as they say, cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Mike Savage September 05, 2012 at 06:54 PM
The Piedmont undergrounding fiasco had this much value for Piedmont: it exposed to previously inattentive and otherwise-occupied citizens just how grossly the city government (both elected officials and staff) were squandering city revenues. (The arrogance and contempt with which city officials greeted the protests and outcry of the populace just rubbed salt in the wound.) Now attuned after many years of "letting things slide", a fair number of interested residents have cogently documented a series of other instances, both in the immediate past and on-going, where the City of Piedmont's officials are squandering or misallocating taxpayer funds. For example, how many of us were aware, until recently, that City officials routinely divert funds from the sanitary sewer parcel tax to pay the salaries of a passel of city employees in connection with work that has nothing to do with the sanitary sewer lines? No one is arguing that there are not essential city services, nor that those services should not be paid for by tax revenues from the city's residents. What is being argued is that city officials have unapologetically squandered massive amounts of the city's tax revenues, risking the city's fiscal health in so doing. What is also being argued is that tax revenues are still being squandered, and city officials show no signs of becoming fiscally disciplined. Until they do, the parcel tax should be suspended so that city revenues fund only essential services.
karen barbieri September 05, 2012 at 08:51 PM
I think the hyperbole regarding the issues you mention has really gotten absurd, save it for state and federal fiscal matters where it might make sense. Perhaps some perspective is needed. Please don't forget that the "undergrounding fiasco" was originally caused by miscalculations and mistakes by the engineers and I believe the matter is still being litigated. The other undergrounding problem came about because the Kurtins decided to sue their neighbors and the city when they were outvoted, and I believe they lost on every substantive issue. Sadly, those who haven't gotten their way on a matter have learned to misuse the legal system in order to make valuable progress virtually impossible by making it too expensive, even where they are in the distinct minority and all appropriate processes have been followed. As someone who watched almost every council meeting for the last several years, I defy you to find an instance where any member of the council acted with "arrogance and contempt" or "squandered massive amounts of city's tax revenues". They listened respectfully and carefully to all sides, but simply didn't agree with some who ranted and took pot shots at council during the public portions of the meetings, when council could only listen and not respond. I know this will elicit a storm of indignation from that bunch, but somebody has to point these things out. Measure Y is needed to fund essential services, and again, I think that's what people need to know.
Tim Rood September 05, 2012 at 10:09 PM
Actually, it was the City's anti-SLAPP action against the Kurtins that the judge called "frivolous" and "devoid of merit" http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-22014763.html
Mike Savage September 05, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Gosh, if you don't think losing $2.5 million plus on the undergrounding fiasco was "squandering massive amounts" of the city's funds, then we're going to have to agree to disagree. The problem wasn't really the engineering. The problem was that the city foolishly undertook an open-ended commitment...to construct and complete the undergrounding...with only a fixed and unchangeable source of funds...the assessments of the undergrounding district. When the price of the open-ended commitment substantially exceeded the fixed source of funds, disaster ensued. Gee, if only the city council had had a member with legal training, they could have easily forseen the potential problem...oh, wait. Michael Rancer has provided a detailed and thoughtful analysis of comparative fire district costs, leading him to the conclusion that the city is overspending in this area. Rather than the typical ad hominems and sloganeering, I'd like to see proponents of the tax engage Mr. Rancer's analysis on the merits...if they can.
karen barbieri September 05, 2012 at 11:12 PM
But that would never have come up if the Kurtins hadn't first sued the City when they lost the vote over the undergrounding project, and the Kurtins lost on all of their substantive arguments. I wish people understood that point. Obviously in hind sight, an anti-SLAPP motion wasn't a good idea, but people forget that the city council was following the advice of it's legal counsel, and that it was the city being sued; they had to defend. I fail to see how that can be considered "squandering massive amounts of city tax revenues". If it were you, would you have ignored the advice of counsel, or ignored the fact that the majority of neighbors voted in favor of undergrounding? With the hills undergrounding situation, the city was the victim of miscalculations by engineers that had been trusted in the past. The project had to be finished or there would have been a huge open trench in the street. There's an ongoing lawsuit to recover the sums spent, most of the city administrators who were involved are gone, those like the writer above either don't know these facts or choose to ignore them. But, these are all distractions from the issue of renewing the municipal services tax, although I do like getting a chance to refute inaccurate allegations. Back when Blair Park was considered, some opponents threatened to oppose the municipal services tax if the council didn't go along with their demands, even though they knew there was no connection. It's simply dishonest and vindictive.
Tim Rood September 05, 2012 at 11:20 PM
I confess to ignorance as to why the City of Piedmont would agree to a $135,000 settlement over, and spend over $500,000 in legal fees fighting, a suit that had no substantive merits. If the Kurtins lost every substantive issue, why didn't the City "bring it on" and litigate against them as well as its engineers?
karen barbieri September 05, 2012 at 11:28 PM
I think you're mixing up the two matters. The city didn't sue the Kurtins, they were defending. The engineering problem has to do with the other undergrounding project and I believe they are litigating it.
Tim Rood September 05, 2012 at 11:36 PM
The City chose to settle the Kurtin suit rather than litigate, presumably on the advice of counsel that its defense wasn't solid. Yet you indicate that the Kurtin suit had no substantive merit. If your assertion is true, I wonder why the City chose to settle the Kurtin case while choosing to litigate against its consultants, Robert Gray/Harris & Associates, a separate case which it must believe also had merit. I can only conclude that the City Attorney and Council did not agree with your contention that the Kurtin suit was without substantive merit.
karen barbieri September 05, 2012 at 11:44 PM
Again, I think you're mixing up the two matters, and with the Kurtin suit, there was the underlying suit by the Kurtins and the anti-SLAPP motion by the city, which is where the loss occurred. I do believe that the Kurtins lost on all substantive issues for which they sued the city. And again, this has nothing to do with the municipal services tax, it's a distraction with no connection.
Rick Schiller September 05, 2012 at 11:54 PM
The City’s anti-slapp defense of the Kurtin’s/Hills Seaview Undergrounding district was characterized by Judge True as follows (taken from his Mar. 23, 2010 partially granted Motion for Attorney Fees): “Plaintiff has sustained his burden of showing that Defendants' anti-SLAPP motion was legally and factually devoid of merit . . . Defendants' anti-SLAPP motion was so deficient, in fact, that the Court did not have to determine whether Plaintiff was able to show through the presentation of admissible evidence that he would probably prevail on the merits.” That ill-advised defense cost taxpayers in excess of $300,000.
Mike Savage September 06, 2012 at 12:29 AM
You're the one who brought the Kurtin lawsuit up. The relevance of the Kurtin lawsuit, the undergrounding fiasco, and so forth., are as examples of the city officials (elected and appointed) squandering taxpayer money. In light of Mr. Rancer's comments on the fire department expenditures, let's discuss whether we think that the city officials (many of whom, such as the City Administrator, the Mayor, and the Vice-Mayor, are the same characters) are fiscally prudent, and therefore merit a renewal of the parcel tax. Are the funds really necessary or can essential services be provided without them? Will the funds be used wisely or again squandered?
Rick Schiller September 06, 2012 at 12:45 AM
As to the Undergrounding: - By Sep 28 according to the City’s own “best case” figures the project had spent $156,148 more then was available in the contingency. Staff kept digging. - On Oct 12, two days before the Crest Road collapse, according to the City’s own “best case” figures the project had spent $349,492 more then was available in the contingency. Staff kept digging. - Oct 14-15 the Crest Road trench washed out. This was by contract the responsibility of the contractor. Staff came to a willing Council for $296,000 of taxpayer money. There was no suggestion that the special benefit undergrounding district should pay. No undergrounding, no trench to washout. Staff kept digging. - On Jan. 15 after the December one million dollar taxpayer gift, the City’s own “best case” figures show the project had spent $1,028,254 more then was available. On Feb 2 project manager Ann Swift stated she did not know the amount the project was over budget although she had the same Jan. 15 documents. On Feb. 6 the Council voted a second million dollar taxpayer gift. For Council and staff to examine themselves, to ignore all pleas for an outside investigation and why City Attorney Peyton’s role was never addressed, is contemptuous of taxpayers right to know where their money went. Some would call it arrogant.
karen barbieri September 06, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Yes, I believe it is necessary, read my original post to see why. Nothing any of the writers have said has changed my mind in the least. Maybe the difference between our opinions is the definition of "essential services". We have enjoyed exceptional services in Piedmont, due in part because of the municipal services tax. I suppose without it, we would still have a Fire Department (although maybe "shared") with an ambulance, but I don't think the city would be able to maintain the response time or the very high level of emergency medical personnel that we have now. Frankly I don't want to take the chance of finding out that services would sink to the level of those of surrounding cities (with much worse fiscal problems) if this tax is not renewed.
Rick Schiller September 06, 2012 at 02:03 AM
Essential services are Police, Paramedic, clean streets/parks, maintenance of basic infrastructure systems and now Mike's research questions what was previously considered essential: fire fighting. Other residents may disagree with me and add new sports facilities, such as the recently terminated Blair Park Proposal, as an essential service. The question is of prioritizing tax dollars and running the City efficiently and curbing the runaway pension/benefit costs. Mike Rancer's letter clearly separates fire fighting from the ambulance service, we essentially have two functions that are unique to Piedmont as the Fire fighting is so miniscule in Piedmont and the paramedic service is able to consistently respond rapidly. The three minute ambulance response time is a result of central location of City Hall and the tight geographic makeup of Piedmont. Threatening degradation of the ambulance service should the tax fail is an unwarranted and illogical scare tactic. Regardless of success or failure of the Parcel tax, the fire fighting aspect and apparent over staffing there should be examined.
Mike Savage September 06, 2012 at 02:39 AM
Fair enough. I can also understand how you feel a special allegiance to city services, given your husband's experience. I have lived in Piedmont for a long time and remember the event well...my first thought that day was concern for your two lovely daughters. I believe we can agree that in the last few years a whole lot of money has flowed out of the city coffers (deferring any discussion of blame), all to no apparent benefit to the city. And yet services remain intact. A lot of people are not "ranting" or being tempermental when they conclude (as I have) that the city can and should be run with greater fiscal responsibility, and that until that happens further tax exactions should be deferred
garrett Keating September 06, 2012 at 03:22 PM
I'll jump in here with two quick comments. I think Karen is correct about the lawsuit but essentially the decision was moot in that the city would never have proceeded with the Hampton undergrounding project after what PHUUD revealed. Mike's last comment brings us back on point - the relationship between the parcel tax and the city services provided by it. I think it is appropriate that voters consider the cost of municipal services when evaluating the parcel tax. A useful comparison of Piedmont's costs with other comparable cities can be found on page 22 of the MTRC report, http://www.ci.piedmont.ca.us/html/govern/staffreports/09-06-11/mtrc.pdf.
karen barbieri September 06, 2012 at 04:47 PM
Mr. Schiller, since you have very strong opinions that the city's handling of these two suits constituted bad governance, I just have to ask, are you qualified to be offering legal opinions, particularly about cases that are pending and about which you had nor have no access to any negotiations that may have taken place?
Rick Schiller September 06, 2012 at 04:50 PM
I presume there were no substantive issues settled in the Kurtin’s/Hills-Sea View litigation and will check on is. The litigation never went to trial as the City settled with the Kurtins after the Judge dismissed the ill-advised City anti-slapp lawsuit. The City was left with nothing except a huge legal bill. The Undergrounding Fiasco, the Crest Road “gift of public funds” and the Kurtin’s/H-SV litigation ill-advised anti-slapp defense are all troubling examples of bad governance. As City staff had numerous geotechnical reports on file that showed bedrock at shallow and surface depth in both undergrounding districts, the millions lost are even more troubling. One Indian Road resident wrote a letter in the Post stating their lawn replanting required jack hammers. Instead of addressing what was common knowledge, Staff chose to accept an unbalance bid from Valley Utility; the Valley bid also had the highest Rock clause at more than 500% the average of the other bids. Even after Valley “discounted” their rock clause down to just under $1,000 a yard, that was still more than double the next responsive bid. No wonder many residents are still disturbed by the Council’s refusal to bring in an independent outside investigation. Had the Kurtin’s not undertaken the difficult burden of litigation, that district would have gone forward and most likely cost taxpayers millions more. Instead of attempts to denigrate the Kurtin’s, there should be thanks.
Rick Schiller September 06, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Ms. Barbieri, My opinion of bad governance is based on the PHUUD Debacle, the Crest Road “gift of public funds,” the City’s anti-slapp defense in the Kurtin/H-SV case, the lack of City risk assessment and adequate CEQA review concerning the Blair Park Proposal, the dishonesty of the City in declaring the Measure A sewer tax was required by the EPA, and other issues. As to the Kurtin’s litigation I am providing quotes, not a legal opinion of the merit of the case or lack thereof. Others can draw their own conclusions. As an attorney you would be far more qualified to express a legal opinion as to the merit of the City’s position against the Kurtin’s once Judge True ruled against the City and if the City should have proceeded with another defense. I would value your opinion in that regard. As to the current pending PHUUD litigation, I have made no comment on that other than to express concern that Council and staff chose to investigate themselves; that is independent of the litigation. Perhaps you will join me in asking the City to declare that all discovery materials in the PHUUD litigation, especially the depositions, be made public once the litigation is concluded so that residents may have something that approaches an independent investigation
Michael Rancer September 06, 2012 at 10:08 PM
I am very sympathetic to Karen Barbieri's concern about ambulance services. Everyone in our family has needed at least on ambulance ride, as have the neighbors on both sides of us. Ambulance is arguably Piedmont's #1 budget priority. And that's why it is easy for me to say that loss of the parcel tax would have zero effect on ambulance services. Loss of the tax would affect only 7% of city revenues, and clearly no responsible Council would, by cutting ambulance services, say that such services are at the bottom of Piedmont's priorities. Further, as has been noted by others, our vaunted 3 minute response time has absolutely nothing to do with the parcel tax and everything to do with the size of the city (less than 2 square miles), the location of the fire station, and the dispatch of the ambulance from that station. As I said in my comments on the need to review the fire department budget, the issue is how many firefighters per shift we need in a city that averages one house fire per year. If it were deemed feasible to reduce the shift size by just one person, the city would save about $1 million per year. That alone would solve the majority of the problem if the parcel tax were eliminated. And it is that question that I challenge the City Council to rigorously and objectively examine, involving extensive public participation and examination of practices in similar cities.
Jim McCrea September 08, 2012 at 12:49 AM
I find it interesting (?) that the City Council has not undertaken a marketing program to show the voters of Piedmont what the Council thinks will be the negative effect of a failure to pass Measure Y. Certainly they must have talked about "Plan B" that details various scenarios of cuts in that event. Why is it so difficult to provide the voters with accessible information about this matter? Why are there no public meetings scheduled to discuss what they deem to be a critical issue? I do hope that the Council does not believe that the ostrich approach will suffice because the average voter (1) can't handle the issues, (2) can't understand the issues or - even worse - (3) doesn't care.
Rick Schiller September 08, 2012 at 01:11 AM
Ms. Barbieri, As an addendum to my response to you, and if you care to comment, perhaps the following will be helpful in discussing the substantive issues concerning the Kurtin/Hills-SeaVew litigation. One of the fundamental issues being litigated, perhaps the central issue, is that before the district was formed, the City agreed that it would take a supermajority of 60% of the residents to proceed with the project. When the vote came it at approximately 56%, the Council said it wasn’t bound by its promise. Although the litigation is closed, I would appreciate your thoughts on this basic issue.
alex Bell September 08, 2012 at 04:43 AM
And I had a fall, didn't need a fire truck, but they sent one anyway because "Piedmont requires a fire truck to accompany all calls for ambulances." How much does that redundancy cost us in manpower & equipment. Wonder if that brilliant rule wasn't generated by the unions.
Public Safety Voice October 21, 2012 at 08:53 PM
s has been his history, Mr Rancers "story" is incomplete. Such broad comparisons are easy to make when ALL of the facts of how and why a Fire Department is run the way it is, are not utilized. Shame on you for telling half truths in order to further your misguided and unrealistic agenda. It seems what you and Mr Schiller desire is to punish the City manager over under grounding. If this is true, why not focus your efforts on him instead of this vicious attack on your public safety and your neighbors? You and your highly educated budgetary committee should have been able to properly investigate all of your claims as to Fire Department staffing, yet have FAILED. This is of course mostly due to the fact that you have done ZERO research in your own City. You pull a few numbers and compare them, without digging and seeing the facts and reasons behind them. A blind sided approach to analyzing anything will ALWAYS bring us to ignorant conclusions. I cordially invite you to PROPERLY compare all of the above facts with the Fire Chief, and you will find that you already have a very lean, efficient, Fire Department that is the least paid, has the AVERAGE benefits package, pays more of its own benefits share than other departments, and also provide excellent services that other departments do not.
Rick Schiller October 21, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Geoff Grote is the City ADMINISTRATOR, not City MANAGER. Piedmont is a Charter City and Grote's authority is narrowly defined and he operates at the pleasure of and does the wishes of the City Council. Perhaps Councils have over relied on his direction and not held him accountable, but ultimately City Council holds the final authority. Yes, City Administrator Grote is ultimately responsible for the Undergound Debacle and other questionable issues. The City has chosen to do no substantive examination or explanation. But as troubling as many events are of late, Council is evidently comfortable with the performance of Mr. Grote. As to Mr. Rancer's Fire department analysis, if his information were false the proponents would have long ago published counter arguments. Mike has been factual and direct. Most of City Council strongly advocates for the parcel tax and could have directed Fire Chief Tubbs, who is intimately familiar with both Piedmont and Albany Fire departments, to document any errors in Mike Rancer's carefully researched information and refute it. Council has not and the information stands as correct. Mr. Rancer was appointed Chairman of the important MTRC because of his well known extensive public sector budget and financial experience. There has been no attack on the Fire Dept or our neighbors, your comment is not supported by facts. I believe the dialogue is best kept away from personal attacks and should focus on the issues.

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