A year ago Coastside Fire Protection District Directors Mike Alifano and Doug Mackintosh were both granted four-year seats on the district’s Board of Directors without a contested election. And a year ago the idea that the community would return to a stand-alone fire department was not on the community’s political radar.
Five years ago, CalFire won a competitive bid to service the community’s fire protection needs after a costly and disastrous locally run fire district staff was replaced for cause. The non-professional bickering, lawsuits and worse, poor performance, of the local fire department required a drastic remedy. That remedy was outsourcing fire services to an independent contractor. CalFire won the first contract to provide fire protection services.
Every service and every contract can be improved. Rather than improving the contract and re-competing the service, the new majority of directors, Alifano, Mackintosh, and Gary Riddell, has decided to return to a stand-alone service without informing anyone of their prior intent. Had they announced their intent to remove CalFire a year ago, and before the election, this issue could have been decided in a fair and open election where the voters’ choices were obvious. That did not happen.
In December of last year, the month immediately after a no-contest election, the intent to go backward to a costly and previously disastrous fire service became obvious. The majority claimed that CalFire was not meeting its obligation to serve the community. Members claimed that CalFire had defaulted on providing the contract’s obligatory services.
Two studies, one performed before the last election by an independent contractor and another recent effort by the San Mateo County civil grand jury, evaluated CalFire’s performance against the contract requirements and actual performance history. Both concluded that CalFire was meeting its contractual obligations and, additionally, that it was providing outstanding service to the community.
The grand jury found no substantial evidence to support the fire board majority’s claims of inadequate performance. The grand jury report recommended that the majority end efforts to return to a stand-alone fire department and the report recommended extending the CalFire contract for another year. Outsourcing contracts should be re-competed on a regular basis, but the majority has not allowed any discussion of this option to occur — they have decided to go backward to a failed service model.
Going backward to a stand-alone fire department will cost this community an additional $1.5 million to $2 million per year. A stand-alone fire service is not likely to provide better fire protection for the community and it will increase the district’s operating cost by around 50 percent.
CalFire has the lowest wage scale of any fire department in San Mateo County and its work rules require firefighters to work 28 percent more hours per year than any other fire service. All other fire districts require more staff to man the same number of fire engines for a full year of service. CalFire’s employees are well paid relative to the private sector and receive better benefits.
Paying firefighters more, giving them more days off, and providing them with even more generous benefits will not fix a problem; public employee salaries and benefits in California across the board are already very generous. This, however, will be a consequence of Alifano’s, Mackintosh’s and Riddell’s goal to reconstitute a local fire department. It makes no sense to do this and they have not bothered to obtain a voter-approved mandate to support their actions. That is why I signed the recall petition. It is the only option left to put this decision to the vote it deserves.
Jim Larimer lives in Miramar.