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Firefighters answer the call & set stage for future budgets

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POSTED August 31, 2010 2:49 a.m.
The Manteca Firefighters Association is arguably the most powerful and influential force in Manteca politics.

It was made evident in the watershed election of 2006 when Measure M - the public safety half cent sales tax - passed with close to a 70 percent plurality. Just two years earlier a similar tax garnered a mere 18 percent approval.

There were a lot of factors but the one that made it all work was the support of the Manteca Firefighters Association (MFA). It wasn’t just support in word only. The membership worked phone banks as well as did all of the pedestrian things one must do to win elections.

There was a price to pay for their support. They wanted city leaders to word the ballot proposition so the split in additional revenue was split evenly between fire services and law enforcement. The previous measure had no such restrictions and was actually a general sales tax. Measure M was very specific on what would happen with revenue generated. It also required attaining a much tougher two thirds majority.

You can actually credit the MFA and the work they did getting voters to back the sales tax for Manteca having 59 police officers today instead of 48 which is what the staffing level would be without Measure M sales tax.

The MFA has been careful not to squander its goodwill or to cut its own throat.

The best example was almost two years ago when the MFA carefully weighed options laid out by City Manager Steve Pinkerton to deal with the $11.7 million budget deficit that loomed on the horizon.

The option was the same being offered to all employee groups - forgo negotiated raises and make some concessions with benefit packages and there would be no layoffs within the employee group.

The MFA just didn’t look two months down the road. They looked farther to the 2010 election and beyond.

They quietly contacted various community leaders and found when push came to shove people would opt to keep the ranks of law enforcement strong even if it meant diluting fire services somewhat.

They took advantage of Pinkerton’s offer to open everything in the budget for inspection. They also attended the citizens’ budget panel meeting where they found there was absolutely no stomach for tax increases. They also heard a loud and clear message that rank-and-file citizens had no qualms with layoffs or finding ways to reduce municipal salaries and benefits.

That prompted the MFA not only to play ball but to get ahead of the curve.

They agreed to salary and benefit concessions. They let the city off of an extremely problematic hook in the signed four-year labor contract that called for an expensive three-man minimum per shift on all engine companies. They then within their own ranks policed vacations so staffing would never drop below the three-man level. They also embraced restructuring proposals and other cost-saving measures proposed by Fire Chief Kirk Waters.

Yes, a lot of it was about looking after their brother firefighters so they could keep their jobs. But it had as much to do about the oath they took to serve the community as well as the new economic realities.

The city starts negotiating new contracts for all workers in 2011. While the last contract broke the city the next one could make the city in terms of putting them on the path to accept the new economic realities.

Police - thanks to getting salary increases and regaining benefits when other employee groups gave them up for an average cutback in compensation of 20 percent - will be near the top or the highest paid police force in the eight cities Manteca surveys.

It is going to be difficult to punish other employee groups that took the hit when the city needed it the most.

As a result, the MFA has built up a lot more goodwill that will come in handy.

But it is doubtful they will leave everything to 100 percent chance.

That is why a MFA endorsement this election cycle could make or break council and mayoral candidates. Such an endorsement comes with manpower as well as the goodwill of having well thought of firefighters backing a candidate.
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