The elected board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District voted unanimously at its July 19 meeting to adopt a policy changing the ground rules for district employees' compensation. The policy will come back for final approval next month.
In the past the district has negotiated contracts with its employee unions that offered pay and benefits that were higher than the average at other local fire departments. Director Peter Carpenter, who has pushed for the changes, said this common method of figuring compensation ensures the average will continuously rise.
The philosophy adopted at the July 19 meeting would allow the district to base pay on other criteria, including the current economic climate, the regional unemployment rate, how many qualified candidates apply for openings, and "the District's anticipated ability to pay in the long term."
"Every time we have a vacancy we have over 100 applicants," Director Carpenter said after the meeting.
Currently, employees receive regular raises based on length of employment. Under the new policy, raises will be based on "merit and performance" and the district will no longer allow "pay increases based merely on length of employment."
The board will consider its own compensation at an upcoming meeting. Currently board members receive a $100 stipend for each meeting they attend plus medical and dental insurance.
The board adopted the new policy with little discussion.
Audience members supported the action. "I think what you've done has been extremely well drafted," said Edward Moritz, a member of the West Bay Sanitary District Board and resident of Menlo Park.
Mickie Winkler, a former Menlo Park mayor and City Council member, called the new policy a "declaration of independence" and said it is "forward thinking."
After the meeting, Duane Reno, the San Francisco attorney who represents the Menlo Park Firefighters Association, said he does not believe the action will really have much impact because the fire board will still have to negotiate with firefighters to set their pay and benefits.
"I guess I'm not sure what the point of it is," he said. "It looks like it's all for show." Comparing firefighter compensation to the pay for public sector jobs won't work because "how many firefighters are out there in the private sector?" he said.
"We're upset about this because it's just public posturing," said Mr. Reno. The firefighters would rather have the board working on negotiating a new contract with the firefighters, he said. "It would be nice if the association saw more substance and less political posturing, but I don't think that's going to happen any time soon."
District firefighters have not had a raise since July 2007 because the district and the Menlo Park Firefighters Association Local 2400 have been unable to agree on a new contract. In April the district imposed a contract on the union that offers no pay raise, but does include $750 a month in additional benefits.
Right now, negotiations are on hold waiting for the outcome of a grievance alleging unfair labor practices filed by the firefighters' union in 2009 with the state's Public Employee Relations Board (PERB). The board's hearing was completed in June, but no decision is expected until the end of the year.
Other non-safety district employees are represented by AFSCME, the America Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Under the current contract, entry level firefighters' annual base pay is $78,936, increasing to a maximum of $95,340 per year after four years.
The district has only 11 employees classified as firefighters, however. It has 50 engineers, whose pay ranges from a starting level of $97,092 to $100,356 after two years in the position. The base pay includes a monthly stipend for the Emergency Medical Technician credentials, which all MPFPD firefighters have, but not pay for those who have paramedic credentials, overtime or benefits.
Including overtime and benefits, 41 of about 115 firefighters in the Menlo Park district are receiving more than $200,000 a year, and 51 others are receiving more than $150,000.
At the July 19 board meeting, union representatives said state labor laws make it illegal for the fire board to consider the new policy before meeting privately with union representatives to discuss the changes. But the district's attorney, Steven Meyers of Meyers Nave, disagreed. He said the new policy, which will be part of the board's Policy and Procedures Manual, could be adopted without separate meetings with the unions. In fact, he said, the policy technically does not even need the second vote that has been scheduled because it is not a resolution.
Firefighters have pointed out that the district is not in the same poor financial condition as many other government bodies, and in fact has a surplus each year.
Director Carpenter says this is "because we're well managed." He admits the district has saved money because without a contract, firefighters have not received a raise in three years except for annual step increases. Two years ago the district sold $10 million in bonds to fund its current liability for pensions that will go to the district's future retirees. The interest rate on the bond is half what the state retirement program, CalPERS had charged, he said, saving the district further money.