Opinion: City Council Not Delivering on Measure P Promise on Fire and Police Departments

0
2183

At the Tuesday night City Council meeting on November 15th, Chief Eric Garcia of the Burbank Fire Department got up in front of the council and explained how “our Firefighters have battled, but we have reached a near breaking point. A point where it has significantly impacted their well-being as well as their families.

Burbank Chamber

Garcia was able to rework the department so that an engine (Engine 12) did not have to be browned out (which means left unmanned) in the near future.

Burbank’s Fire Chief was very frustrated, as you could tell.  I’m sure that he was taking some heat when he announced the brownout of Engine 12 a couple of weeks ago. Last night he announced that “Consequently, we were able to come up with an alternate, temporary solution that will more effectively meet our intent and keep all Engines in service.” That solution is to take firefighters off three different engines to keep Engine 12 in service, reducing those other engines from four-man to three-man crews.

“While all Engines are in service, make no mistake, we are still browning out positions, and that is not good. We will evaluate this scenario routinely to get us to a point where we can staff to our standard deployment and doing so without the number of force hires we have had to maintain,” said Garcia in his presentation to the Council.

This situation still puts a strain on resources and personnel, both on the Police and Fire Departments.

Garcia also told the Council, “The bottom line is that we need Firefighters, and yes, a recruitment is underway with an academy scheduled to begin in February. We have and will continue to think creatively to adapt to the current recruitment landscape, and we will close that gap; however, what we desperately need is to retain our Firefighters.

Throughout this process, we have not simply lost firefighters, we have lost a tremendous amount of experience… and that is a gap that will take years to recover from.”

You can’t put this on the leadership of the fire department, this falls squarely on the shoulders of the City Council, which negotiates the contracts for firefighters and police officers in Burbank.

Betsy McClinton, Management Services Director for the City of Burbank, is the chief negotiator for the city, but she still brings the negotiations to the City Council for approval. They are the ones that approve the contracts during closed sessions.

The blame does not also go to everybody’s favorite scapegoat, the pandemic. The attrition of firefighters to other departments started way before coronavirus was a buzzword, and yes, the pandemic did take its toll on first responders, but it is not the sole cause of this issue in Burbank.

Let’s go back in time four years ago to November 2018 election when citizens of Burbank were asked to vote on measure P. It read:

“To maintain City of Burbank’s fire, police, 9-1-1 response; keep fire stations open; maintain the number of police/firefighters; repair streets/potholes; ease traffic; earthquake retrofit city buildings/bridges; maintain senior/after-school programs; address homelessness, other services and aging infrastructure; Shall the measure be adopted approving an ordinance establishing a 3/4¢ sales tax providing approximately $20,000,000 annually until ended by voters; requiring audits, citizens’ oversight, all funds used in Burbank?”

61.79% of Burbank voters said yes.

About the first 20 words say it all. Were Burbank voters sold a bill of goods that the City Council had no intention of delivering?

“Since the City started receiving tax money from Measure P, the City has received $89 million dollars in Transactions and Use Tax (TUT) revenue as a result of the passage of Measure P.  50% of this revenue went directly to the Municipal Infrastructure Fund, which provides capital improvements and maintenance to the City’s streets, sidewalks, parks, and all other city buildings and facilities. The other 50% stays in the General Fund to help fund all Citywide operations,” said Jonathan Jones, Burbank’s Communication Manager.

So while the Infrastructure Oversight Board makes recommendations to the Council regarding the infrastructure of the City, the City Council has complete control of the other 50% or about $45 million so far. We have no problem considering spending $10 million on the artificial turf at Brace Park. Why we can not invest in our fire and police departments?

Burbank citizens were LED to believe by the proposition that first responder would be taken care of. Four years later and it appears that is far from the truth.

To me, this is starting to sound like Burbank’s version of the County’s Measure H a few years ago. We were also promised that it would help the homeless issue, yet for about every $1 Burbank residents pay in taxes, they see about 10% come back to help Burbank. We were scammed.

We have firefighters transferring to other departments and are struggling to keep our numbers up in the Police Department.

Eric Rowley, President of the Burbank Firefighters Union, says his firefighters have been working without a contract since July 1 and are still in negotiations. He is also frustrated, “The city currently has a wage policy that refers to paying “average of market,” however with the numbers of firefighters and employees across the city leaving, it’s an indicator of the average not being enough, especially with the large amount of growth this city is experiencing and will continue to see for the years to come. The fire service and public employment have seen a huge decline in recruitment and retention, and without incentivizing wages and benefit packages, city services will suffer.

The current temporary reduction is a huge issue, both on the side of citizen and firefighter safety. NFPA 1710 recommends four firefighters per engine, and all the cities surrounding us: Los Angeles City, Glendale, and Pasadena, all have four firefighters per engine. A city of Burbank’s caliber should not have 3-person staffing on their engines. The efficiency and safety of 4 firefighters on an engine cannot be understated,” said Rowley.

It’s time to completely change and reinvent how we do business as a city when it comes to police and firefighters.

Without a doubt, Burbank is growing. Whether it’s because of the SB 35 building or the housing that we need to have in the city or the amount of growth in the business community, we need to look into the future instead of staying in the present.

We have a new project going into the Fry’s site, are approving numerous new SB 35 housing units on Empire Ave, and are going to completely redesign and add sound stages to the Warner Bros. Ranch besides the large Warner Bros building that is nearing completion by the 134 Freeway. This is not even taking into account what’s going to happen at the old IKEA site.

With the growth predicted in the city, we have to anticipate those needs in the future. It is time to bolster, not just supplement, our police and fire departments and rethink the staffing levels of both organizations.

Rowley says the growth is coming and will affect the City, “Our call volume is increasing at an exponential rate and the EMS/ department study performed by AP Triton predicted our call volume to double in 15 years. In reality, 15 years is not that far away, and there will be constant growth in demand every single year until we hit that projected doubling in call load by 2037. For this reason, all elements regarding the department infrastructure and staffing need to be addressed immediately to prepare not only for the challenges that we are facing today but for the challenges that we know we will be facing in the years to come.”

As it is now, we have to rely upon our mutual aid system for paramedic resources at times, with paramedics from both Glendale and Pasadena having to fill the void in Burbank when our three paramedic units are tied up. While Burbank does assist Glendale at times, there are far more responses in Burbank that Glendale must cover.

Many times when paramedics transport patients to the hospital, they must run with other red lights and sirens blaring (Code 3) to get there quickly so they can become available for another call quickly during peak times. Not only does this put paramedics in jeopardy by running Code 3 when not medically necessary at times, but they also increase a patient’s bill by running them at a Code 3 rate.

And yes, there are solutions out there, “We (management and labor) started to discuss adding another transport element, but unfortunately, we don’t have enough people to implement a change. It’s a shame that we have gotten to this point despite repeated warnings that this is exactly where we would end up. This change must be evaluated for the true direction of the future, not just what we are able to do currently. EMS and paramedicine will be evolving greatly, as evidenced by systems across the US that have seen community paramedicine -Physician’s Assistants and other resources being paired with paramedics to better serve the community,” said Rowley

If we need a seventh fire station in Burbank, then add it. If we need a fourth paramedic unit, then add it. Our paramedics are worn down with numerous calls all night. With our aging population here in Burbank, we will only need these services in greater numbers.

We need to pay firefighters and police officers better than a competitive wage so that they want to be here and other cities are less likely to recruit them away. We can require anyone hired under that new contract to commit to a period of time that they must remain in Burbank so that the money we spend on training is not wasted.

We should look into making sure firefighters can afford to live in our city instead of having to travel far away. One benefit is that when a large disaster hits Burbank (i.e., Earthquake), they will be in our community immediately to help our citizens instead of being stuck somewhere unable to get here when the infrastructure collapses.

We may come up with a competitive wage right now with other cities that will soon go ahead of us again, and we will be left behind and once again playing catch up.

Enough.

Our City Council should be embarrassed that our police and firefighters are in this situation now and should have seen it coming for years now. They’ve enjoyed the fruits of the measure P money but have not made the hard choices to honor their word as it appeared on the ballot. Possibly growing out a fire engine is a shot across the bow and a desperate measure to elicit a long-term solution to the problem.

I have heard people in the past say that Burbank firefighters are overpaid when you look at how much they make a year. What is not taken into account, though, is that more than half of that money comes from the State of California to repay them for the time they spend when they fight wildfires in other cities and counties in California. The money they make during that time is then sent to Burbank, which issues them their paycheck so the money does not come out of Burbank funds. When firefighters go out on a strike team, they can be gone for several weeks.

So let’s not blame the Fire Chief or the Police Chief, who have no say so on how much we pay the members of their departments; this lies squarely at the feet of the City Council. It’s time for them to step up and bring pride back to Burbank, its first responders, and the citizens that they serve.

At Tuesday night’s Council meeting, the City Council voted on a new lease for the Castaways that was not due to expire for another three years that will bring in millions of dollars to City coffers, yet we can let the contract of firefighters expire in July. Our priorities need to be adjusted.

Rowley agrees, “It is impossible to believe that we can be a world-class city – “The Media Capital of the World” – without first-class city services, especially as it pertains to public safety. We are not a broke city, we have healthy revenue, healthy reserves, and excellent prospects for the future. But none of this will matter if we can’t maintain our first-class fire department and other excellent city employees. Once we go, all of the other development, world-class entertainment companies, and solid middle-class families will be right behind us. This issue is bigger than just the Burbank Fire Department. This issue has an impact on our entire city and where we will go in the years to come.”

Garcia also expressed real concern as he told the Council in his closing, “We simply cannot sustain the path we are on, and I have grave concern about the vitality of the BFD if steps are not taken to correct our retention and recruitment challenges. We continue to provide exceptional service to our community; however, we are in significant jeopardy of losing that if we do not create the competitive mechanism that demonstrates the value placed on that service, the value of our Firefighters. In my humble opinion, the best Firefighters not only in the region but state-wide.”

We agree with you, Chief.

UMe Schools