Hello and welcome to everyone's favorite serial: "What Else Can Go Wrong With Our Fire Districts?" In the latest installment, firefighters and management are exchanging furrowed brows over contract terms in the Moraga-Orinda district.
The fire board, staring at a ledger that shows a lot more money going out than coming in, seems inclined to impose a last, best offer of a 9½ percent cut in pay. Firefighters, who haven't seen a raise in six years, even as their health care costs have ballooned, have looked upon this as they might a coiled rattlesnake.
The problem, as always, is funding -- just as it has been in the Contra Costa Fire District, the East County Fire District and almost any other fire district you can name. Property assessments and taxes may finally be on the rebound, but they can't rebound fast enough to overcome a five-year swoon or overtake growing retirement debts.
The MOFD showdown has been simmering for weeks, but it came to low boil at a district meeting Wednesday night, when Chief Stephen Healy may have inadvertently fanned the flames by offering to take the same percentage cut as asked of his staffers.
Here's the difference: Four months ago, when he was promoted from division chief, Healy's annual pay jumped 44 percent (from $153,000 to $220,000), so his follow-my-lead gesture doesn't ring quite the same as giving up 9½ percent of wages that have remained static since 2008.
Firefighters are also aware that times haven't been as hard in this district as they have in others. MOFD has a capital surplus of more than $3 million, even after dipping into it to balance this year's budget and purchasing land for a new station that may or may not be built.
Attendees took turns at the microphone speaking in support of their firefighters. A former Moraga policewoman applauded their "professionalism, quality of care and tremendous compassion." A 28-year resident thanked them for running up a long, steep driveway, where cars blocked their truck, to provide emergency care to her mother-in-law. A man reflected on a fellow firefighter who'd lost his life in the line of duty.
It's difficult to find a villain in this story. This isn't about greedy workers demanding better working conditions and more money.
It isn't about heartless bosses eliminating jobs.
There isn't even a strong sentiment of us vs. them. District president John Wyro said the thought of imposing a pay cut on firefighters "kind of tears me up. These are our guys. I'm hoping we can find an amicable solution."
This situation, in microcosm, is what's facing jurisdictions throughout the state. You can blame political leaders for promising retirees money they didn't have. You can blame the same leaders for being as prepared for an economic downturn as they were for an alien space invasion. You can blame an inefficient public safety model gravely in need of a makeover.
We've invented smartphones and apps that bring the world to our fingertips, but too often we still send a fire truck, ambulance and five responders to medical emergencies.
Negotiations will continue for the Moraga-Orinda district. A state fact-finding panel likely will be brought in to examine the district's resources and needs. Then, sometime before July 1, a resolution will emerge and life will go on.
There also will be resolutions at ConFire and East County. But none of them will come easily.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.