November 06, 2003

Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

The 11/5 emergency budget meeting for Richmond public services was notable first and foremost for the glaring absence of Point Richmond residents (though kudos to Joan Gatten and her attache for attending). I don't know why for Point Richmond residents fire, police, library, and park services are everyone else's concern, but this meeting was largely carried by inner Richmond residents, and good for our colleagues beyond the Cutting Avenue cordon sanitaire for holding up that flag.

Note: although David Moore's points to the middle of this particular entry, there have been many more posts on My Point related to the budget cuts. Track them from the main page.

It's our city, people. The services described affect us directly. Did you know the Fire Department may have to close the Point Richmond firehouse (#61)? Did you know the Point Richmond branch may have to reduce service to 12 hours per week (and as a library administrator, I realize keeping that branch open is a gift in itself, given the costs associated with keeping open a physical plant)? Is it really all right with you that we rack up all kinds of unpredictable costs by closing our jail and forcing police officers to drive all suspects to Martinez? That alone will easily incur hundreds of dollars per incident, big or small.

Thursday night (11/6) there's a big meeting at the Planning Board, because quite a few people are in a tizzy about builder Raymond Chandler squeezing McMansions on space barely capable of handling one large house. I don't have fire in my belly on this issue. How can I get worked up about Chandler's mcmansion-on-a-napkin project when this has been pro forma for Point Richmond development? If exploiting lax oversight of zoning laws was a crime, the Richmond jail would be overflowing. Apparently "variance" is another term for "immediate approval, particularly if we know you."

The other reason I can't get worked up about this Planning meeting is that I'm disappointed in how much energy has been directed to this one issue when Richmond is in fiscal turmoil. Where are the phone trees, the impassioned e-mail messages, the sense of urgency, the streetcorner discussions when we're talking about losing our local firehouse, seeing our library almost disappear, and watching the police department be forced to divert its capabilities toward shuffling drunks between downtown Richmond and Martinez?

Point Richmond, where are your priorities? Is it that you don't care about anything you can't see?

At least one Councilmember has portrayed the slash-and-burn budget proposal as a done deal. I'm not unsympathetic to the idea that we need to look more closely at cost-sharing of benefits--but that's a really slippery slope. When the budget situation improves, will cost-sharing be shifted back to the city, as appropriate? Cost-sharing is, after all, another way of saying "salary reduction." I also haven't seen a budget model demonstrating how cost-sharing helps us get out of the multi-million-dollar deficit, or a plan for getting out of cost-sharing once the crisis is over.

More seriously, when we ask how we got into this mess, the standard answer is to blame it on the unions. I'm baffled (o.k.--downright skeptical) that in one year we could go from relative feast to famine, and it's all the firefighters' fault. Even if there were a kernel of truth in this, didn't the City Council members play a major role in this mess by approving the employee salaries and benefits that got us in this mess in the first place? And could this really be the most significant reason we are suddenly in a massive deficit? How did we get there so quickly?

Speaking of creative funding ventures, both the police and the library departments came up with interesting ideas. A police officer suggested instead of closing the jail (and incurring possibly tens of thousands of dollars of unmanaged costs through the need to schlep all suspects to Martinez), Richmond could bring in revenue by serving as a regional jail for East Bay cities that currently drive suspects to Martinez. This would fly in the face of the concept of exploiting city services for personal gain, but nonetheless it deserves serious consideration.

The acting director of the Richmond Library also unveiled a great idea, albeit not one to tide them over the very-short-term pain: establish a tax district for the library. Many city libraries across the country (and as close as Berkeley) have adopted special tax districts, which meet several objectives: library funding is largely "off the plate" for the municipal budget, leaving the city to focus on other services; library funding is predictable, which leads to better, more cost-effective long-range planning; for the extraordinary range of services you can get in a modern public library, the very modest tax for supporting it is always more palatable than the annual line item in a city budget. You look at what the library's request for local funding, and you say "for cryin' out loud, compared to everything else, this is bupkas."

Everyone knows this is going to be a hard year. There will be cuts, and these cuts will be felt across the board. But Richmond residents at this meeting were working together toward patchwork solutions that at least had the sense of commitment to long-term fiscal recovery. Their eyes were on the prize.

Posted by kgs at November 6, 2003 05:02 AM | TrackBack

Experientia docet - Experience is the best teacher

Posted by: shemale pictures at May 2, 2004 09:18 AM

Just another comment or two. In an earlier post I made reference to Proposition 13, and the impact it had on local governments in general, and the City of Richmond in particular. Because of the change in local funding, I was laid-off for a 2 month period, as were many other Richmond firefighters. At the time when we were brought back in September of 1978 the City of Richmond had less than 700 full-time employees. This included 120 firefighters, and 150 police officers. Now there are over 1100 full-time employees, this includes 95 firefighters, and 180 police officers.

That's interesting, isn't it? Public safety employees have remained constant, albeit with a change in the amount of police officers compared to firefighters, but more or less unchanged since 1978.

On the other hand, there has been a significant increase in the nonpublic safety employees.

What am I getting at? Given that the means to finance local goverment was changed radically by the passing of Proposition 13 in 1978, your local government was still able to grow by 50% over the last 25 years. By growth, I mean the size of staff. Has there been a 50% increase in service, and quality?

The arbitrary decision to make equal cuts across all employee groups is rather specious, at best. To think that by reducing each employee group, or City department an equal amount is fair is what I'm talking about. Fair to who? If a department or employee group has grown over the course of the years, while others have remained static, or even contracted in size, where is the fairness?

Is the equal reduction in employee groups, and department resulting in an equal reduction of service provided to the taxpayer, and citizen? No.

If public safety is a priority (as stated by the city manager) why then is there a distinct possibility in a reduction of your fire, emergency medical, and police protection?

Posted by: Dan Martin at November 10, 2003 09:38 AM

First of all, I'd like to say that I think the majority of Point Richmond residents know very well the impact the closing of Fire Station 61 will have on our community. Many may feel somewhat helpless, given that so little of our tax dollar gets back to the community as it is. And I will admit to attending these meetings; many of us work other than 9-5 jobs and don't always have TIME to attend these meetings, if, indeed we even hear about them in time!

However, I have sent e-mails to all city council officials opposing the proposed budget cuts for our community. Furthermore, I have a few comments, generally regarding statements I've read that were made by city council members recently. My first is a question.

Are fire stations, schools, parks and libraries no longer considered vital and standard institutions in every American community? The term "programs" that city officials choose to use when referencing our vital institutions in correlation with their proposed budget cuts, seems inappropriate, at best. As Americans, we work and pay taxes, relying on a safe community where our children can play and get a decent education. California is one of America's wealthiest states, and the Bay area is the wealthiest area in it! If our state is 10 million over budget, as Tom Butt stated, the taxes we pay are being mishandled!

Whether the fault lies with government or city officials, makes little difference to me (the end result is the same). BUT IT's NOT THE FAULT OF THE COMMUNITY. So, in response to Mr. Butt's "one of two things must happen" comment, suggesting benefit cuts or layoffs, my suggestion would be to "Take the deeper cuts" from the city officials new offices "program" or the mayor's new bathroom "program" - not from the taxpaying community "programs"! Since very little of our tax dollar comes back to the community as it is, it seems only fair.

And it just doesn't make common sense to me that the unions are to blame; I don't think THEY are pocketing our tax dollars! The comments of kgs on Nov. 6 as to "why we are suddenly in a massive deficit" . . . and "how we got there so quickly" remind me of the "energy crisis" - remember when we were all asked to 'pitch in' and conserve?
I read in the paper a few months ago that taxpaying parents in Oregon were donating blood to raise money for their schools! Aren't THEY outraged enough to demand education for their children for their tax dollars? Let's not forget about Enron, people. I'm no expert, and maybe I'm way off base, but I see many similarities here.

Posted by: Marvette at November 10, 2003 03:01 AM

My name is Dan Martin. I'm a Captain for the Richmond Fire Department. I'd like to make a few comments, and put forth a few concerns. The current fiscal crisis is nothing new. 25 years ago Proposition 13 went into law. The difference between then and now is that this crisis is bringing no relief to the taxpayer and citizen. In fact, never before has your fire and medical protection been spread so thin. The Point is going to take it in the shorts come January 1st, needlessly.

The City staff is making more than quality of life decisions concerning the spending of your tax dollars, it will be a matter of life or death, and an increased loss of property. Timeliness of response is everything. Putting the first breath of oxygen in a heart attack victim or first water on a fire is all about timing. Having a Station in the Point makes a difference. Considering the alternative, that your responding firefighters will be coming from North Richmond, or the Southside should be a concern. Given that those Stations are currently the two busiest, and more than likely providing service somewhere else, your responses time will be even more protracted.

There has been a fully staffed Station in Point Richmond for the last 93 years. The need for the Station hasn't diminished. But, the ability to provide for the citizens certainly has.

I'm not trying to paint a picture of gloom and doom, and I'm certainly no Johnny come lately to the fire service, but for the life of me, I can't get past the fact that the City is proposing to have even less firefighters and equipment available on a daily basis than during the Great Depression. What gives?

I guess I'm rather skeptical. The City staff that got us in this mess, is using the same brain power to get us out of it. God help us all.

Posted by: Dan Martin at November 7, 2003 08:03 PM

Bravo Karen! Finally, someone has the guts to tell it as it is. Our situation in Pt Richmond is pitiful--not just libraries, fire, and police, but across the board. I am Chairman of the Urban Forest Advisory Commission and have seen enough to make your hair curl. Competent people are deserting the "ship" in droves to seek a more compatible environment. Nothing seems to get done here in the City. Attend a City Council Meeting to see procrastination and indecision rule the day. The only thing working at capacity is the BNSF Railroad, but that's a whole 'nother story. It's time for action. The time is now.

Posted by: Fred Arm at November 7, 2003 04:31 PM

The distance from Station 61 to the next Engine company that will protect the Point: Engine 67 is located at 12th & Cutting, 1.5 miles from Engine 61. Engine 67, located away from the Point, is already running around 250 calls a month - its one of the busiest engines in the Bay Area. Their average response time to Point Richmond will be over 10 minutes, not a time that can save a heart attack victim or stop a single house fire into turning into a multiple dwelling fire. Is that OK with you?

Posted by: Dan Colvig at November 7, 2003 04:25 PM

About 3 years ago the City of Richmond paid good money for a study regarding retrofitting its fire stations. Based on the results of that paid-for study, they spent a ton of money retro-fitting station 61 in Point Richmond so that it could be safe and available during a major earthquake. It is currently the only station so equipped.

The discovery from that study was that station 61 was in proximity to the Chevron Refinery, the freeeways, the Bridge, the railyard with all its hazardous materials, BOC compressed gas, Canal Blvd. with all its hazardous materials and that it protected the Point which is the most likely location for a firstorm. The fact that Point Richmond can often be isolated by trains was also considered.

Being a key station then apparently means nothing now as the City Council has voted, in closed session and without public debate or input, to close station 61 and leave everyone in Point Richmond, Atchison Village and the Lower MacDonald area without adequate fire and emergency protection.

Richmond has to confront a budget crisis. The City has overhired and overspent. During this period of overhiring they City has consistently cut the fire department. We have not grown at all while all the other city budgets have had exponantial budget increases.The fact that hard decisions have to be made does not OK shutting off a whole portion of the city to the fire and medical protection they have paid for. The firefighters worked hard to help pass Measure J last year, a utility tax increase that was supposed to maintain public safety.

In your own household, I'll bet you wouldn't pawn your fire extinguisher for a short term monetary fix and I'll bet if you had to reduce your power bill you wouldn't turn off your smoke detector. Well that's what the City is doing.

Richmond is already spending less on fire protection than any city their size in the Bay Area. Richmond is an admittedly dangerous city with a very small fire department. Richmond firefighters already go on more emergencies, far more, than any other fire department in the Bay Area and we do it with less firefighters than everyone else.

A fire department exists to protect its citizens from the worst; medical emergencies, fires, disasters, hazardous materials releases. Should Richmond eliminate more of its already-pitiful fire protection with no public debate? Richmond currently has 24 firefighters on duty every day to protect it. Vallejo has 28, Berkeley has 28, Hayward has 30. No city our size has reduced fire service. Certainly no fire department faces the challenges Richmond faces. Any study would show that Richmond can afford fire protection reduction the least. We can not do our job with 21 people a day manning our stations. So what happens when firefighters can't do their job? Ask your City Council.

Richmond Firefighters hope that Richmond residents will ask the hard questions of their City Council and that they will demand that after passing measure J and paying some of the highest taxes in the Bay Area, that they will not have their life-saving services cut without some explanation from the City as to how they decided that writing of the lives and the property of certain residents is the best way to manage their budget.

Dan Colvig
Fire Captain, Station 61

Posted by: dan colvig at November 7, 2003 03:24 PM
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