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Double-edged sword in MOU for fire service?

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POSTED June 9, 2009 2:17 a.m.
To the extent practicable and within economic resources, the City shall endeavor to attain and maintain a minimum Engine and Ladder Company complement of three full-time employees.  The Fire Department shall make every reasonable effort to ensure that other duties assigned to unit members, including but not limited to Fire Department sponsored training, special projects, or incidental duties shall be scheduled so as not to conflict with the intent of this section.
Effective July 1, 2007, one full-time employee shall staff the Rescue Vehicle daily and minimum staffing shall be increased by one (1) for every three (3) Measure M employees hired by the City.
 To the extent possible and within the economic resources of the City, the City shall endeavor to attain and maintain a minimum engine/ladder company complement of three full-time employees.  Further the City shall endeavor to provide an additional employee to each shift for every 9 employees required for minimum staffing.

– from the memorandum of understanding agreed to between the City of Manteca and the Manteca professional Firefighters for the time period Jan. 1, 2007 to Dec. 31, 2011

This is the section in the much ballyhooed contract between the City of Manteca and firefighters that some believe has the citizens of Manteca over a barrel.
With anywhere from $2 million to $4 million yet to cut to balance the budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, there are those who think this inoculates the fire department from layoffs.
Guess again.
The opening line might allow the city wiggle room but then the Measure M language comes up. That is why some are arguing you’ve got to cut more police – there are already 14 positions vacant – and not firefighters. The fire department has two vacant positions.
Critics of this contractual provision are correct in that it guaranteed minimum staffing. What it doesn’t address, however, is the number of engine companies or fire stations the city is required to maintain.
It leaves the door wide open for rolling “brown outs” of fire stations to effectively eliminate the equivalent of one entire engine company. That in itself will save in excess of $1.3 million.
It still can meet the Measure M language without cutting any corners although it may cost long-time firefighters hired with general fund money their jobs if layoffs come as they are not Measure M positions. It seems the language in effect protects new hires at the expense of old hires if both parties don’t agree we are in an unusual economic period for the City of Manteca.
It is true folks were told Measure M would increase firefighting staffing when it passed. The same was true for police staffing. Given the current circumstances, other ways are going to have to be found to keep the promise. And since the language calls for a ratio of three Measure M firefighters to every general fund firefighter, the city may have no choice but to let general fund positions go in order to keep things square with voters.
There are scenarios being passed around where everyone else will take hits in the final budget cuts except the fire department. Those scenarios all hang their hats on this provision of the MOU between the city and the firefighters.
It could end up being a double-edged sword.
What counts now is that the five people voters entrusted to run the city must steer Manteca away from a financial iceberg. Further cuts – and they are needed – must be distributed across the city. However, it is important to keep public safety as whole as possible and with police already taking a big hit with 14 positions unfilled they should have somewhat of immunity to further cuts.
Also, the issue for the council is the level of service. One fire station out of commission may not be as bad as having nine less cops given the huge number of medical calls the fire department handles and the fact we have an extremely competent non-profit ambulance service.
No one should take glee in anything the city has to do next.
Understandably, those who could be on the chopping block will do anything they can avoid to being laid off. That aside, the No. 1 priority is for Manteca to live within its means with minimum impacts on the level of service that is necessary for basic public safety.

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