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The Fire Department is a bloated fiscal mess that, thanks to union politics, won't face the budget cuts it should

Wednesday, Apr 30 2003
San Francisco Fire Chief Mario Treviño -- a summa cum laude college graduate and one-time Seattle engine captain who has served at every firefighting rank at some point in his career -- is a person whose appearance and manner denote efficiency. He's trim but not slight, terse though not abrupt, and friendly without being overly insinuating.

Treviño was hired three years ago from his chief's post in Las Vegas as the first outsider to lead the San Francisco Fire Department in more then 100 years. After we'd spoken for a half-hour at his mahogany-clad offices on Second Street, I asked him what that transition had been like. He paused for a moment and gazed at nothing, in the dreamy, inefficient manner of a person who's casting his mind inward.

"The hardest part has been getting a full grasp of a whole bunch of people, politics, and political issues I had no knowledge of before coming here. I came to the department as a professional, without knowing what the political underpinnings are," he said. "To work effectively in a city like San Francisco, you really need to understand these things."

Treviño's situation may seem a lonesome one. But he's actually got plenty of company. During the rueful budget season of 2003, when the city must cover a $347 million shortfall, hundreds of thousands of San Francisco taxpayers face a similar dilemma. When the chopping is done this fall, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of vital city services will be gone. And in bureaucracies such as the SFFD, tens of millions of dollars of needless spending will remain. Behind this dysfunctional state of affairs will be the aforementioned "whole bunch of people, politics, and political issues" that most San Franciscans know little of.

And Mario Treviño is almost as powerless as the taxpaying public to change the situation.

San Francisco, to a greater degree than most American cities, is wired tight with interest groups, most importantly labor unions. Over the years, San Francisco public-worker unions have negotiated contracts, adopted work practices, inflated staffing levels, and devised complex overtime padding schemes that have, in concert, ballooned the cost of putting out fires, solving crimes, and providing other basic services to truly astronomical levels.

So San Francisco, the left-wing city perennially distraught about the plight of the unfortunate, will cut comfort to the underprivileged, but continue funding expensive perks for politically powerful labor unions. No department better exemplifies this perverse profligacy than the San Francisco Fire Department, which, amid the budget carnage, will likely maintain a cadre of three Fire Department group therapy "counselors" -- ex-firefighters with no advanced degrees or experience in the field of mental health -- at a pay rate twice what a qualified social worker earns elsewhere. Chief Treviño tells me the department may continue funding these positions, even though firefighters, like other city employees, have an insurance plan that offers some of the more generous mental health coverage in the Bay Area.

And like I said, it's not necessarily the chief's fault.

Other American cities have certainly gained fame as union towns, but there's something special about the influence San Francisco's municipal workers' unions have gained over the conduct of government here. In New York City, which is facing a budget crunch similar to San Francisco's, the mayor has formed a blue-ribbon commission to study plans to eliminate a handful of fire stations as a cost-saving measure.

San Francisco has a parallel situation: A study conducted during the Feinstein administration showed that levels of service would actually increase by reducing the number of stations (many of which were mapped out during the 1800s) and combining services into fewer, better-equipped facilities.

Now would seem the perfect time to consider such a measure. San Francisco's current budget shortfall represents around 7 percent of the city's total budget, but more than 25 percent of its discretionary (i.e., General Fund) spending. Our leaders face a historically unique exercise: They must attempt to maintain vital government services while cutting millions of dollars in spending, in one short season turning the City and County of San Francisco's government into an efficient user of funds. This most certainly will not happen.

John Hanley, president of San Francisco Firefighters Union Local 798, says his union has budgeted $65,000 for a door-hanger political campaign that is apparently aimed at terrifying neighbors into thinking (wrongly) that they would be endangered by any closing of any fire stations. The union's campaign also includes bus-stop advertisements all over the city, each of which depicts a blazing building coupled with the slogan "Save Our Neighborhood Fire Stations," insinuating (wrongly again) that even intelligent consolidation of firehouses would somehow threaten lives.

The city's most important (and ambitious) politicians took quick notice of the firefighters' concern, showing up in force at a recent firehouse rally organized by Local 798. Mayoral candidate and Supervisor Gavin Newsom, Supervisor Chris Daly, mayoral candidate Angela Alioto, and mayoral hopeful and City Treasurer Susan Leal all paid homage to the firefighters' save-the-station campaign. Alioto did her peers one better, promising to add a firehouse to the city's existing oversupply.

"San Francisco is a city of wood houses," Alioto told me just after she spoke at a municipal-employee union rally last week. "Our firefighters need to be well-equipped. Our Fire Department needs to be strong."

Margaret Brodkin, director of Coleman Advocates for Youth, a children's advocacy group, sees it differently.

"It's not about public safety -- it's about perks and benefits and work rules," Brodkin told me. "If we don't cut the Fire Department, instead we'll have to cut things like pediatric services."

All city departments have rules, policies, and practices that, over time, have evolved into an enormous system of payroll-padding perks worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But the Fire Department may well take the cake when it comes to payroll inflation. A brief scan through the litany of grand jury findings, internal audits, and City Controller's reports that have criticized the Fire Department in recent years leaves the undeniable impression of a bureaucracy out of control. A longer perusal of city pay records, departmental overtime requests, and labor contracts between the city and Local 798 reinforces the impression.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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