Upland & Montclair Consolidate Fire Department Administrations

(December 19)  Over the objections of a contingent of Upland residents, the Montclair and Upland city councils on December 16 embarked on what has been touted as the wave of the future for local governmental jurisdictions when they separately approved the consolidation of their respective city’s fire administrations.
“We are setting the model,” Montclair Councilman Bill Ruh proudly proclaimed.
Across the city limits in Upland, a handful of residents and business interests and one dissenting city council member expressed concern that the merger was one that benefited its smaller neighbor far more than it did the City of Gracious Living, which under the terms of the agreement would be essentially subsidizing a portion of Montclair’s public safety services.
Upland, the second most affluent of San Bernardino County’s cities as measured by median household income, pays its firefighters higher wages and provides slightly better benefits than Montclair firemen receive.
A previously contemplated accompanying dissolution of the service boundaries between the two agencies will be postponed until July 1, Montclair City Manager Edward Starr said.
The cities will split the compensation for Upland Fire Chief Rick Mayhew and a fire marshal, who will likewise devote his work week between the neighboring cities.73,732-population Upland, which heretofore employed 36 fulltime firefighters staged out of four fire stations will cover 67 percent of the cost of employing Mayhew and the fire marshal. 36,664-poulation Montclair, which now fields 24 firefighters operating out of two fire stations, will pick up 33 percent of those salaries.
Also subject to the merger will be battalion commanders sufficient to cover each station in both cities, augmented by a central administrative staff consisting of an executive assistant, a clerk and secretary.
Not subject to the merger will be two deputy fire chiefs, one for each city.
For the time being, each department will maintain its own identity and retain responsibility for its own firefighters below the command level. The two-year pilot program is being undertaken at this time, with the stated intention of merging the departments entirely down the road. According to Starr, the Upland firefighters will remain Upland city employees and the Montclair firemen will remain as Montclair city employees. In Montclair, the merger was particularly well-received.
As a result of the state of California’s shuttering of municipal redevelopment agencies throughout the state, toward the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, Montclair laid off 10 employees as part of its effort to make up for its loss of redevelopment money. Throughout much of 2010-11, one of the Montclair Fire Department’s paramedic units was parked and the city’s paramedics functioned from the department’s remaining engines, which stayed in service. Over the last year-and-a-half, what was a 27-firefighter department has lost three positions to attrition, and has not filled those vacancies, making up for the manpower shortage with overtime. In September 2012, Starr, in a cost-cutting move that saved the city a third of a million dollars a year in wages and benefits, elevated police chief Keith Jones to the position of director of public safety and gave fire chief Troy Ament his two-week severance notice. In June of this year, police captain Michael deMoet was appointed to the position of director of public safety, following Jones’ retirement.  de Moet will continue to function in the role of Montclair fire chief until the merger becomes effective, likely next month.
Starr projected that Montclair will realize $476,170 in operating cost savings as a result of the merger. The agreement will not result in any further layoffs of firefighters, Starr said, but the department will from this point get by without filling any of its vacant slots. Starr said the merger will also assist his city’s fire department in reducing overtime costs.
Unlike Montclair, which has been engaging in a drawdown of its service, the Upland Fire Department has been intensifying its level of service, including maintaining, over the past four years, an air ambulance, consisting of a paramedic team stationed aboard a helicopter based at Cable Airport. That enhanced level of service may in part explicate the discrepancy between the $476,179 in savings Montclair is to yield by the merger in comparison to the $156,000 in savings Upland is projected to see.
While there was marked enthusiasm for the limited merger of the two departments in Upland, where the city will likely see, according to city manager Stephen Dunn and Mayhew, $156,000 in savings, the approval of the consolidation, or at least its timing, was not unanimous as it was in Montclair.
The merger was opposed by one city councilman, the chairman of the council advisory committee and a prominent city businessman. City councilman Glen Bozar cited salary increases to management staff and resultant future pension benefit costs as a major factor in his opposition.
“There is no true savings in this,” Bozar said. “This is savings on paper only. This is not reducing our current operating expenses. Not enough scrutiny was given to this 42-page document before the council gave the mayor authority to sign it,  locking ourselves into an agreement with our neighboring city we cannot walk away from. Montclair previously made substantial layoffs in its fire department. How did those vacancies there come to be? They did not fill those because of budgetary problems.“
Bozar continued, “This agreement is going to expand the administration of the fire department. Our fire chief and three of our guys are going to get very generous salary increases out of this.  Where are we going to come up with the money to give all these raises?  No one on the council was informed of what the chief’s salary will be or where this is going to land in terms of the increases in our public employee retirement system costs for the fire chief and at least two others.  This does nothing with regard to our ongoing issues with the budget. This does nothing to control costs. Figures available from the state controller’s office show that as a city we have 12 people on our payroll who are making more than the governor of California. That was as of 2012. This does not alleviate that and now we are going to be on the hook for additional public employee retirement benefits.“
Tom Mitchell, the chairman of the Upland City Council Advisory Commission, told the Sentinel, “One of the things I had difficulty on was the creation of the two assistant chiefs positions and the creation of a third position. I was given a response to indicate there would actually be elimination of two existing command positions so that matter was resolved. Another problem, I thought, was the long term nature of this and were we entering into a two-year commitment we would not be able to get out of if problems developed. It was stated that either city can terminate this with six months notice, so that was resolved. The one issue that for me remains unresolved is what we are taking on by the promotions of our battalion chiefs who will  be getting a $20,000 per year pay increase. This could only make worse the situation with regard to our pension requirements. Our responsibility to the state pension fund already is an unfunded liability that we have not resolved. Under the current retirement formula, firefighters can retire at 55 and be eligible for a pension. There is a multiplier of three percent times the number of years worked, so at 55, a battalion chief who has been with the city for thirty years can retire and be eligible for 90 percent of his pay. We are already under the gun and unable to keep up or barely keep up with our pension fund payments. An increase of $20,000 per year for each of these battalion chiefs means $18,000 a year more when they retire. I don’t think we can afford that.
“I just wanted to make sure that the city council looked at this all the way around before moving forward with it,” Mitchell said.
Albert Pattison, a resident, businessman and major property owner in Upland, expressed concern that the council’s action might be counterproductive and premature.
Pattison said the city had not publicly released a cost analysis of the consolidation, saying he wanted the public and the council to see a side-by-side accounting of the number of fire department command positions currently and what those employees receive in salary and benefits and the city’s total costs in employing fire department commanders after the merger. Noting that the city’s budget management task force is currently considering the city’s revenue enhancing and cost cutting options, Pattison said the council’s commitment to the command level staffing numbers contained in the merger agreement with Montclair did not allow the task force to bring forth proposals related to eliminating battalion chiefs within what might be considered to be a top-heavy department. We did not give the committee, which is composed of top-tier business people and residents of our city, an opportunity to weigh in on this.”
“What it boils down to,” Pattison said, “is they have given us razzle-dazzle, not facts. There has been no disclosure to the public on the detail needed to analyze this thoroughly. They have not divulged what is actually in the contract. I have not seen the contract and neither has anyone else. They have not given this process enough time. They  rushed it through before the specially-appointed budget committee had time to consider it. There has been a totally inadequate discussion of how this will impact the financial stability of the city. Montclair is going to realize savings of $470,000 on this and Upland is going to supposedly see a $156,000 reduction. But Upland is putting two-thirds of the horsepower into this and Montclair is providing one third. I’m not sure there is a cost-benefit equity in this deal. This was not put on the  budget task force’s agenda and now that the council has ratified the agreement, it is another element that will contribute to the confusion and retard the city’s ability to deal with its financial challenges.”

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