Carmel firefighters push city officials on a three-city fire department merger.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Carmel-by-the-Sea officials are now cautiously open to merging the city’s fire department with Monterey’s and Pacific Grove’s, according to City Administrator Rich Guillen.
Monterey and P.G. officials are working out the terms of a joint fire services agreement that was originally conceived as an administrative consolidation but is now moving toward a full merger. Carmel officials have been observing the regular meetings between the two cities. Once Monterey and P.G. finalize the merger, Guillen says, Carmel might opt in. The decision hinges on whether a merger would improve public safety in Carmel and save money, he adds.
Members of the Carmel Professional Firefighters union, which supports the merger, expected more details on the issue after the April City Council election. “The last thing we heard was they were waiting to see how the elections went,” says union president August Beacham. “That has passed, and we have not heard anything.”
The union and the city have been in labor negotiations for a year, and firefighters have been working without a contract since last July. Beacham says the negotiations have nothing to do with the potential merger. “We have never tied the two together,” he says. “Public safety is first and foremost in our minds.”
Yet there are clear connections. A merger among the three cities would likely turn Carmel and P.G. firefighters into city of Monterey employees, Beacham says, bumping them up to Monterey’s higher pay scale. It also would likely give Carmel and P.G. fire employees the right to binding arbitration, which is in the Monterey firefighters’ contract.
“Right now we have no recourse,” Beacham says, noting that public safety employees may not strike. “We are at the mercy of the city.”
The six-person Carmel Fire Department is operating without its own full-time chief, assistant chief, fire marshal or training captain, Beacham says. It only has staffing for two firefighters per engine, compared with the state standard of four.
Carmel contracts a fire chief and assistant chief from P.G. and a duty chief from Monterey – measures Beacham says are designed to compensate for the department’s lack of overhead and staffing. “Those are not permanent solutions,” he says.
On Tuesday, May 6, the Carmel City Council extended the $135,000 service contract with P.G. another year, saving an estimated $58,000 compared with hiring an in-house chief. “We’ve been doing this for six or seven years, and it’s worked for us from a cost perspective,” Guillen says.
The potential merger became an election issue this spring, when City Council challenger Michael LePage suggested city leaders were intentionally keeping the discussion off the City Council agenda. “Until we have a public forum about it, they don’t have to talk about an issue that could be controversial,” he said in March.
Previously, Mayor Sue McCloud and incumbent City Council members Karen Sharp and Ken Talmage said that while they are comfortable with an administrative consolidation, they would not support a full merger.
In mid-March, Guillen took out a taxpayer-funded ad in The Carmel Pine Cone, responding to the union’s claims that the fire department’s current staffing levels undermine public safety. In the ad, he emphasized that only administrative consolidation – not a full merger – is on the table.
Guillen offered a different outlook May 5, saying the merger discussion will “absolutely” make its way onto a City Council agenda, eventually.
Beacham hopes that will happen sooner rather than later. “We are eagerly awaiting any further news from the council,” he says. “Now is the time to make the decisions.”