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Coastside Fire Board of Directors Remain Divided on CalFire Contract

Some Directors think CalFire should stay, while others hope for reestablishing a stand-alone department.

It’s been a month since the board of the voted to consider discontinuing CalFire services in favor of a stand-alone department when the existing CalFire contract expires end of June.

Since then, a flurry of e-mails, Facebook posts, and calls between Coastside Fire Protection District Directors and taxpaying residents have been exchanged about the future of the agency which covers the Half Moon Bay Coastside.

With 3-2 votes to give legal counsel the authority to draft a contract for attorneys and consultants to look at going back to a Coastside-only department, opposing views on the CalFire issue continue to surface.

On the one hand, new Coastside Fire Protection District board members say a stand-alone department will provide a higher level of service than CalFire and that CalFire takes advantage of a contract to benefit their organization.

“The current CalFire contract terms restricts us from holding CalFire accountable,” said Coastside Fire Protection District Director and Vice President Mike Alifano, who was elected for the 2012-2015 term after running unopposed.

“The issue with CalFire failing to provide expected contracts with local municipalities like San Carlos is very real. There was a Grand Jury report that just came out on the Feb. 15, 2012, regarding the specifics on that fiasco. All those decisions came from Sacramento and are so far from the Coastside Fire Protection District's control,” said Alifano, who added that the state of California worries him.

“It’s clear that local entities like our Fire District must lookout for their needs because the state has larger problems,” Alifano said.

On the other hand, there are the “seasoned board members with the institutional knowledge of seeing this attack on CalFire before,” said Director Ginny McShane, who has served on the Coastside Fire Protection District Board since 2001.

“CalFire is our responsible provider and is cheaper for the taxpayers,” she said.

Director Gary Burke, who with McShane dissented the expenditure to hire consultants to consider ending a contract with CalFire, contends that “our old discredited Union Local No. 2400 and their supporters have undertaken a constant campaign to undermine CalFire by litigation and political means. Our current board president was the plaintiff in three lawsuits funded by the Union to stop the CalFire contract, and there has been election political pressure to oust CalFire as well.”

Burke credits a strong political agenda to get back to the Union and “a nostalgia for the good old days” for the attack on CalFire, he said.

“The system prior to CalFire could be justly described as cronyism and favoritism and many found that advantageous,” Burke said. “The only difference this time around with the attack on CalFire is that the approach is more subtle and less aggressive, hoping many citizens will not remember the problems of the past, or may not care.”

The CalFire contract was established in 2008 after years of personnel problems and unrest at the stand-alone department. After several former fire chiefs and a consultant suggested using an outside contractor because the problems with management could not be resolved, the San Mateo County civil grand jury recommended that the existing CalFire service was the way to go.

Now a consulting firm is evaluating a return to a stand-alone department and compiling data on the costs of past, current and future fire service models. Once that information is ready, the board will hold a public study session to review the information.

“Cost is the major issue now,” said Burke. “We have several reports indicating CalFire's success as both professionally and financially a better fit. My personal philosophy is that when any kind of proposal comes to the Board, we have to consider what’s the best for the taxpayers and that’s how I vote. As a public board member, it’s your judicial responsibility.”

Alifano concurs that cost is the issue, but is just as concerned that the level of service the taxpayers are paying for "is nothing like what we had four years ago," he said. "My job as a board member is to make sure that the taxpayers are getting what they pay for."

Still, Alifano remains hopeful for a change and is committed to the Board looking into this more by comparing CalFire to other options.

“If the financials come back and verify that we can afford our own employees rather than contract out to CalFire, then the Coastside Fire Protection District Board of Directors will have to decide if that’s the direction we are going collectively,” he said.

Until then, the Board remains divided despite sharing the sentiment that finding the best value for the community is what’s important here.

Opposing Coastside Fire Protection District Board of Directors, Alifano and Burke have more to say on the issue. In the comments below, tell us what you think after reading their responses to the following questions:

Responses of Mike Alifano (Vice President - Board of Directors, Coastside Fire Protection District, on the Board since 2012, term expires November 2015).

Alifano is in favor of hiring consultants to consider ending a contract with CalFire and re-establishing a stand-alone fire department.

1) What mistakes were made in how the existing contract with CalFire was written, how does it lack oversight and why doesn't it give the board say in employee retention, training and management?

I think the biggest mistake made when contracting with CalFire for labor/firefighters was the lack of any oversight. It's very unfortunate that the Directors of the Fire Board are required to get involved in making sure that CalFire is doing exactly what we have paid them to do per the contract.

Unfortunately the situation at hand should have had a contract administrator with a fire service background and past experience in managing a CalFire contract for an entity like a fire protection district. That position’s day-to-day responsibility would be making sure that everything is getting addressed and working to verify that specific items that are of concern to the Fire Board are getting completed as requested. That person will also interact directly with CalFire’s management and would report back to the Fire Board. This person would also work as an employee of the Coastside Fire District with loyalty to the Coastside Fire Board.

Currently we have a CalFire Fire Chief John Ferreira and Division Chief Paul Cole that the Fire Board interacts with directly. They are CalFire employees with loyalty to their employer, CalFire. Currently we are on the honor system. The two primary Fire Chiefs that report directly to the Fire Board of Directors at our monthly meetings are only in the district less than four hours a day or 20 hours a week. That's because CalFire’s Chief John Ferreira recommended that the Coastside only have a part-time fire chief (Chief Paul Cole) because they could use him on the other side of the hill as the County Fire Chief for the areas that CalFire contracts with for San Mateo County. This is one example of how CalFire takes advantage of a contract to benefit their organization.

The main reason why Coastside Fire Protection District contracted out with CalFire was to end its long-standing issues with labor-management problems. CalFire absorbed all the employees/firefighters as part of the contract agreement thus relieving Coastside Fire Protection District of future lawsuits and labor problems.

I want to be very clear that we did not contract with CalFire for financial reasons. One of the downsides to contracting with CalFire was giving up the ability for the Fire Board to have any control regarding complaints or problems that came up with certain CalFire employees.

These issues typically were centered on requests for retraining of certain firefighter or documenting issues requiring disciplinary actions. One of the issues surrounding the differences between a CalFire firefighter and district firefighter was the level of training and certifications. The Coastside Fire Board understood that CalFire's firefighters were only trained to a certain level than the prior firefighters of our district. We provided additional money to train these new firefighters to our requested level. Unfortunately we had no control over how long that newly trained firefighter would remain with our district. Eventually the Fire Board realized that we were becoming a revolving door for these newly trained firefighters.

Additionally, CalFire moved a prior district Fire Marshall/Battalion Chief into a position outside of our Fire District without replacing him first. The Fire Board was very adamant that CalFire not make any moves like this without first finding replacement for that position and allowing some training and knowledge exchange between incoming and outgoing individuals.

Also, we had a Deputy Fire Marshall retired in December of 2011, and we still don't have a replacement for that position. Prior to going to CalFire we had full-time Fire Marshall/Battalion Chief as well as a full-time Deputy Fire Marshall. We also expressed the identical concern with Chief Ferreira with this position and we are still waiting for this position to be filled. From the looks of how the vacancies of these positions are coming we will have replacements with little or no experience compared to prior people in these positions. The Coastside Fire Protection District will be responsible for sending these CalFire employees to Fire Marshall training at the district expense.

Again we’re in the situation where we have no say in how long this newly trained Fire Marshall will remain in the district so we can at least get our initial investment back for the training that we provided. If this training takes six months we will not have a Fire Marshall during this time. You would think that one of the major benefits in contracting with such a large organization would be the depth and ease of filling experienced vacancies. Not the case what so ever when dealing with the states hiring freezes, labor and union restrictions and bureaucratic red tape.

2) If there is a problem with the contract, why not look to amend the inconsistency first before spending money on giving legal counsel the authority to draft a contract for attorneys and consultants to address reestablishing a Coastside-only department?

Yes, there are several problems with the contract. The original contract was poorly written and hard to hold our contractor CalFire accountable. The contract was amended about a year ago and that was a struggle to get both parties to agree to the terms. The part of the contract is referred to as “Exhibit E” and this is the technical part of the contract that took me sometime to understand when joining the board. During this process several items regarding the contract came up for discussion, and it was becoming clear to the board that CalFire wasn't fulfilling the terms of the contract.

Clearly the Fire Board set specific levels of service that were expected, understanding that there were additional costs associated with the agreed level of service we expected from CalFire. CalFire being a state entity is not the easiest to work with when it comes to making changes that involve levels of service, complaints and money. It’s the State’s way or the highway, and I think the Coastside Fire Board needs to compare other options down the highway.

3) What are the pros of keeping CalFire in place and renewing the contract?

None! There are no guarantees with CalFire as our contractor. The Coastside Fire Protection District will continue to be a resource that CalFire will take from to their benefit. Just because they cost less doesn’t mean the taxpayers are going to get a rebate on their property tax bill.

My job as a board member is to make sure that the taxpayers are getting what they pay for. Currently the level of service they are paying for is nothing like what we had four years ago. Clearly, we had a full-time Fire Chief, Fire Marshall, Deputy Fire Marshall and today we don’t, period.

4) What are the cons of keeping CalFire in place and renewing the contract?

The Coastside residents are still lucky to have two of the same Battalion Chiefs that have been on the Coast for over a decade. Additionally, we have several firefighters that transitioned to CalFire and currently work on the Coastside still.

My fear is CalFire will ignore their original commitment to the Fire Board and community to keep everyone that wanted to stay on the Coastside here. I hope they don’t start moving these Coastside assets out of retaliation for the Fire Board doing its due diligence of comparing the existing contract with other options.

5) How much is it going to cost to go back to a stand-alone Coastside department?

That’s a hard question to answer because we or any other department has done we might have to do. The closest is Belmont but they had to do everything from scratch, not just employees like us. They also separated from a JPA not CalFire.

I would guess $50,000 in attorneys and consultants and another $100,000 in transition, training and hiring costs. We have plenty of money in the budget to pay for a better level of service, and we are financially sound. We just purchased three new fire engines for more than $1.6 million in cash.

6) It is argued that the real issue is not CalFire but management issues and that a whole new administration should be put in place. Do you think that by making a Coastside-only department this will help management issues?

This is a CalFire issue and they control their administration and management from the Fire Chief, his command staff all the way down to the firefighters on the line. The previous Fire Board voted to take the shortcut and sweep the problem under the CalFire rug as their solution for the labor-management problem.

The harder decision to make at that time was to deal with the problem head-on and do the right thing, lead by example and hold everyone accountable for their actions. They allowed the labor side of the problem to control the management side, the classic “tail wagging the dog” scenario. How many Fire Chief’s did labor chew up and spit out? Four!

Ultimately the Fire Board became controlled by the very firefighters that caused all the issues, problems and lawsuits. They were new Fire Board members voting for their own retroactive raises and controlling their very own destiny. They then tried to seal “their deal” with the CalFire contract. That’s the “conflict of interest” that got us to where we are today.

That entire situation is now imploding, and I want nothing to do with going back to that part. We now have the option of starting from scratch and moving forward on our own.

I truly believe that we can achieve the level of service the taxpayers are currently paying for if we have our own employees. We can then control the level of training and certification, employee retention and breakaway from the current limitations the state imposes with CalFire as our contractor.

Gary Burke (Board of Directors, Coastside Fire Protection District, on the Board since 2006, term expires November 2013).

Burke is in favor of continuing the contract with CalFire.

1) What mistakes were made in how the existing contract with CalFire was written, how does it lack oversight and why doesn't it give the board say in employee retention, training and management?

The CalFire contract is for the most part a boilerplate document. It allows for amendments at any time, which has been done many times. It is "a la carte" so we can pick and choose number of firefighters, special training.

The Coastside Fire Protection District specific requests are contained in "Exhibit E,” which is a laundry list of 273 items that we require of CalFire. While this list is overly detailed and contains numerous "gotchas," it has been agreed to by CalFire and is in effect. There is no lack of oversight. The board receives a monthly status report of 40 key items, and quarterly report of another 35 items detailing all major performance subjects.

In addition, board members review all financial documents, and meet individually with the Fire Chief on any item of concern. Like all contracts this one is based on trust and cooperation, and the Fire Chief has been most cooperative.

The Coastside Fire Protection District under CalFire does not have a retention problem. We have lost two employees in the last 14 months. All personnel issues, hiring, promotion, etc. are operational issues delegated to the Fire Chief.

Board members are not qualified to make these decisions and our bylaws so state. The board hires three people: the Fire Chief, legal and auditor. Board involvement in operational leads to favoritism and cronyism.

2) If there is a problem with the contract, why not look to amend the inconsistency first before spending money on giving legal counsel the authority to draft a contract for attorneys and consultants to address reestablishing a Coastside-only department?

This is a waste of the taxpayer’s money ($50k). As noted, the contract can and has been amended and changed many times.

3) What are the pros of keeping CalFire in place and renewing the contract?

CalFire demonstrated better level of service, to be more cost effective, have contract flexibility, and to not exceed money contract, no future liability for healthcare or retirement for taxpayers, superior management. The Fire Chief and assistant Fire Chief have a total of 65 years experience, something this small district could not replicate, better training of firefighters, no litigation, grievances, MOU contract negotiations. CalFire does not make policy, level of service, or financial decisions, that is the responsibility of the Coastside Fire Protection District Board.

4) What are the cons of keeping CalFire in place and renewing the contract?

CalFire is a very professional organization that has provided excellent cost effective service to Coastside citizens. At this time the CalFire contract is by far the superior choice. 

5) If CalFire is more cost effective for the taxpayers is their service and training also better than a standalone department?

CalFire Union No. 2881 was hired four years ago to replace our old Union No. 2400, who as documented by Chief Bonano, two other fire chiefs, an independent consultant, and the San Mateo Grand Jury, "was not able to provide a level of service consistent with the mission of the fire service."

In four years of service to Coastside residents, CalFire has responded to over 8,000 calls with no deaths, incidents, and litigation. They have a proven track record. CalFire is the 3rd largest fire department in the U.S. and provides service to over 150 cities counties and special districts in California, including San Mateo County for the last 18 years.

Their cost effectiveness and outstanding service has been documented by two Grand Jury reports (2010 and 2012) and the consultant Tri Data report released in September 2011, which stated: “The District is receiving excellent service at a lower cost than if provided independently. Reforming a local department is not a good idea.”

CalFire's work schedule, 72 hours versus 56 hours, and pay schedule, results in a saving of $1.7 million per year to taxpayers. The CalFire Union Local No. 2881 and management have earned our support.

6) Do you think a stand-alone station will cost taxpayers more?

My analysis, as well as Grand Jury reports, consultants, county and city reports, all conclude CalFire is more cost effective. Even more important, they perform excellent service.

Read the public discourse taking place on this issue here on the Half Moon Bay Review.

The District board meets once a month on the fourth Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. at District Headquarters, 1191 Main Street, Half Moon Bay. The agenda and board packet materials are available for your review at the Administrative Office prior to the meeting.

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Bobby Mcfee March 01, 2012 at 10:39 PM
No way should they go back! Cal fire is the most efficient and professional department in the county. Why would anyone want to give that up? They have done a great job in our community for so long and have done so much to help us. I have seen those firefighters work so hard to gain our trust and have earned it. They deserve to stay here! I have never heard a complaint about them.
George Muteff March 02, 2012 at 01:40 AM
and here we go... Very well done, Christa. The only question I'd have is why are questions 5 & 6 different for the 2 Board members you spoke with? As I've noted before, two different members and two opposite views, both passionate. I might make one comment to Alifano's comment: "My job as a board member is to make sure that the taxpayers are getting what they pay for." Admirable, but I would think he meant to say that his job as Board member is to make sure our citizens are protected and getting the best value possible for that protection. Moreover, that comment insinuates that we are not getting what we pay for. Now, maybe that's true and maybe it's not, but I have to believe that if I were on the other end of that comment, I'd take it personally - which is counterproductive to a smooth, harmonious environment and relationship. Nobody wants to be told they're doing a lousy job, or that they're stealing and nobody likes to be disrespected. I can't see how that helps adjust alleged issues; but rather possibly exacerbates them, which only feeds contempt and helps guide the Department in another direction. I continue to wonder how two intelligent people, and of course I'm referring to the two Board members interviewed here, can be looking at the same things and be in such opposition. Why? How? Makes me wonder what the Real Brass Ring is.
Vince Williams March 02, 2012 at 09:23 PM
The problem is Directors Alifano, Mackintosh, Riddell and their cronies. CalFire is doing a great job and provides us a level of service we couldn't achieve as a standalone department. Director Alifano misrepresents the recent San Mateo Civil Grand Jury report. Coastside Fire has already gone through the CalFire scoring process and acceptance process by the State for contract. San Carlos was not approved and did not score as well as Coastside Fire. The State is not going to leave local communities that contract with it and all of Riverside County is a lurch by withdrawing CalFire service. There is one year notice provision in the contract and typical 4 to 6 months of warning on contract renewals and term changes. The Coastside Board has adequate warning and doesn't not need to be in perpetual mode of looking for other options like Alifano advocates. What Coastside citizens should fear is Alifano, Mackintosh and Riddell losing control of Coastside Fire to IAFF Local 2400, Ira Ruskin, Jerry Hill, Carol Groom and Adrienne Tessier, like San Carlos did when they put San Carlos into play. Now, with a functioning cost effective local fire service through CalFire, Coastside Fire has Board independence and local control. If Coastside Fire goes back into play, we will lose local control that is the message of the latest Civil Grand Jury Report on San Carlos. Alifano's responses to questions are disingenuous.
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