SAN BERNARDINO, CA If the reservoir of veteran firefighters in the city developed a leak in the Great Recession and the crack widened with the 2012 bankruptcy filing, then it’s in 2015 that the dam broke.
Frustrated employees in both the Police and Fire departments have warned for years that actions city officials were taking to try to get the insolvent city on sustainable financial footing were leading unsustainable numbers of seasoned police and firefighters to look to other agencies for work –endangering public safety.
Both departments reduced staffing in past years, but now, with working conditions imposed as part of the bankruptcy process limiting the compensation of both groups, they’re trying with mixed success to hire faster than employees leave.
Firefighters, particularly, have flooded out in 2015.
According to numbers provided by the city’s Human Resources Division, 10 firefighters have stopped working for the city in the past five months –more than the previous four years combined, and more than triple the average for 2005-2014.
That’s nearly one-tenth of a force that employed 112 fire safety employees on the last day of 2014, according to Human Resources Division Manager Helen Tran.
One of those reluctant departures is Nathan Cooke, a battalion chief who transferred from San Bernardino to a fire department in the South Bay after years of resisting what he called a sense of constant threat and underappreciation.
“We waited and we waited and we held on as long as we could to continue to serve the community,” said Cooke, echoing many firefighters who lament that it’s gone from a ‘dream department’ to an unpleasant stepping stone. “I think you’re going to see a mass exodus from the City of San Bernardino Fire Department. First and foremost, is the morale is the lowest I’ve ever seen it, and I was there approximately 15 years.”
AN ADVERSARIAL RELATIONSHIP?
Leaders of the unions representing firefighters and police –who have watched six officers leave this year, putting the Police Department slightly below the 10-year average of nearly 16 departures per year –give similarly downcast predictions for the ability to hang onto current employees, at least as long as the City Council and administration continue their current stance.
Those leaders counter that the stance is born of financial necessity –and an unnecessarily adversarial approach by union leaders.
“Every step we take, we’re sued by fire (union leaders), but we need to be good stewards of the public’s money,” said Councilman Fred Shorett, who has often tangled with the union over the years. “It’s not that we’re attacking anyone. We’re in bankruptcy, and even if we weren’t in bankruptcy, we have a responsibility to be as efficient as possible.”
Generally, lawsuits by the fire union have attempted to stop reductions to firefighters’ compensation. Salary for police and firefighters, which is mandated by the city charter to be the average of what 10 like-sized cities pay for the same positions, hasn’t been directly reduced, but the city has imposed benefit reductions that limit take-home pay.
The city has also openly talked for months about paying Cal Fire or San Bernardino County Fire to provide fire services if that proves to be a less-expensive than maintaining its own department. With a several-month lag time between when firefighters start looking for a new job and when another agency hires them, City Manager Allen Parker said that would account for the recent surge in departures.
So it’s not surprising, nor is it particularly troubling compared to the turnover the city has had in all departments for years, Parker said.
“There’s always a discussion: Do you fill vacancies or do you fill it through overtime?” Parker said. “It takes a long time to fill a vacancy –six months or longer in both police and fire.”
The city’s spending on overtime for firefighters is on track to be between $6.8 million and $7 million this year, he said, roughly on track with previous years. (The city had earlier projected to lower that number, in part by cutting the equivalent of 1.5 of its 12 stations and “browning out” another when administrators determine that conditions warrant it.)
Those brown-outs are happening –once a month or more since the City Council authorized them in October, according to Battalion Chief Daniel Harker –partly to reduce overtime costs but mostly to reduce strain on overworked firefighters.
“They’ll reach times when, just due to the vacancies of he day, we’ll try not to work somebody over four days straight, because after four days straight (of 24-hour shifts) it becomes quite a strain on the person doing their job.”
Harker added that the adversarial relationship between the city and firefighters is also a strain, and isn’t new.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and when I got here there would be fights back and forth,” he said. “I’m not sure why it dates back so far, but it does. The bankruptcy obviously adds to it.”
TURNOVER A CITYWIDE PROBLEM
The turnover rate in the previous 10 years –not counting 2015 –has been an unusually stable 2 percent for firefighters and 6 percent for police, according to Human Resources.
Not a single firefighter left in 2012, the year the city filed for bankruptcy, and only two left in 2013.
By contrast, the first year of the city’s bankruptcy saw about one in four employees leave citywide.
And turnover among executives –which exceeded 50 percent in 2013 –has long been abnormally high, averaging 24 percent since 2004, according to an analysis by Management Partners, the company San Bernardino hired to help them through the bankruptcy. In that 10 years, there have been five city managers, police chiefs and and Public Works directors; four finance directors and fire chiefs have rotated through.
The current interim fire chief, George Waterhouse, started three months ago and expects to learn when the Plan of Adjustment is presented this month whether he’ll stay past the beginning of the fiscal year July 1.
That kind of turnover at the higher levels does contribute to instability, Waterhouse said.
“I’ve talked to all of them who left since I started, which is only three months, and it was basically the insecurity of not knowing where the city was going and the (Fire) Department itself,” he said. “I totally understand it, and most of them are young enough to where they can go somewhere and it’s not a great loss for them in terms of benefits.”
It’s different for the city, though.
“It’s huge for the city,” Waterhouse said. “You invest a lot of time and money into all your employees, one –they’re a great resource. … And it affects your hiring pool. Instead of getting experienced lateral transfers, now we’re sort of in the reverse scenario of we’re losing senior people to other departments instead of the other way around.”
Firefighters experienced with San Bernardino do a better job, especially combined with training that has decreased as vacancies have decreased available time, said Cooke, the former battalion chief.
They know the areas of the city that more often have problems or that could turn especially bad if a problem occurs, such as facilities storing hazardous chemicals or schools, including floor plans and the people at those locations, he said.
“Take a city that’s over 100 years old and 60 square miles,” which describes San Bernardino, he said. “If you were to take another organization or department and plant them in the city of San Bernardino, you’re not going to have that knowledge base, you’re not going to have that corporate knowledge.”
Vacated positions for engineer, captain and battalion chief have been filled through promotions, Waterhouse said, and the city has groups in various stages of recruitment. He has authorization to hire until he hits full staffing and expects to reach it if the department isn’t contracted out, but says that in the meantime response times for 9-1-1 calls will be slower than they had been.
Fire union president Jeff English, who responded in a written statement, said it was mismanagement by Mayor Carey Davis’ administration that led to the problems.
“San Bernardino has a management problem, not a money problem,” he wrote. “The bureaucrats at City Hall continue to squander ever higher amounts of money on consultants and newly created six-figure administrative positions while deliberately starving the community of services, closing fire stations, continuing the elimination of fire department personnel and resources, to the detriment of all San Bernardino residents.”
Over the past year, English said, police and fire budgets have decreased, while the city manager’s doubled and the mayor’s administrative budget increased 30 percent.
In fact, the city’s budget shows the city manager’s department is budgeted for nearly $1.4 million this year, compared to just over $1 million spent in the 2013-14 fiscal year –an increase of 30 percent, as two assistant city managers were added. The mayor’s, meanwhile, went from about $495,000 to about $519,000, a 5 percent increase. (Within each of those two departments is a subtotal for administration, which also did not increase by the percentages English gave.)
Those two departments each account for about 1 percent of the general fund budget, compared to 46 percent for the Police Department and 24 percent for the Fire Department.
Since 2009, fire staffing has gone from 156 to 114, according to English, numbers that aren’t significantly different from Human Resources figures 154 employed on the last day of 2008 and 112 on the last day of 2014.
Budgets do show funding for police and fire has decreased, including through station closures –something Davis said during his 2013 mayoral campaign he didn’t support.
Asked his position with regard to police and fire and whether he was concerned, Davis said he trusted the leadership of the two departments to work with Parker to maintain safety with the budget they have available.
Asked about his relationship with the rank-and-file, specifically, Davis said that was “probably better left unresponded to,” adding that while fire union leaders spoke for the rank-and-file they weren’t necessarily synonymous.
“I think we still have work ahead of us to bring about that longterm stabilization,” Davis said. “I think there has been some inroads made. I think we’re going to probably have some of those results demonstrated once we get through the Plan of Adjustment. I would imagine (the bankruptcy) has created a sense of uncertainty for most departments, and once that plan is is adopted and then implemented, I think that’s when you have the stability.”
When the bankruptcy hit and police officers started leaving –19 in 2012, one less than the year before, but 24 each in 2013 and 2014 –union president Steve Turner said officers were looking for stability and he was hopeful they’d get it soon.
He doesn’t say that anymore.
“I was optimistic at one time. I am no longer optimistic,” Turner said. “The turnover is just going to continue. I think the longer the city takes, the more officers are going to leave.”
Turner is referring to a contract with the city that is, in some sense still being negotiated –after a deal was reportedly reached this summer, then disintegrated as both sides said the other had misinterpreted the terms.
In bankruptcy court, attorneys for the city and the union no longer say they’re close to a deal.
While Turner said he himself isn’t looking for another job, he’s advised many younger officers who ask him about leaving that they should consider it.
“They ask on a regular basis,” he said. “I think all the officers, what they hear from me, is they have to do what’s best for them and their family. Who knows how this contract’s going to end up? And because that’s such an unknown, folks are not willing to gamble: They’re leaving.”
Parker said he’s aware of that, and the city is trying to come to an acceptable agreement.
“It’s creating concern for the Police Officers Association,” he said when asked if he was concerned about instability. “They would like to see that stabilized, so in our Collective Bargaining Agreement they are asking for elements of a contract that they feel would instill retention and a sign on the city’s part on salary and other aspects to the contract, that we’re showing good faith and that we’re going to keep our Police Department, and we want to retain our Police Department.”
The turnover is slowing and police leaders are making changes to help, but it’s unrealistic to expect a moment in the near future when things return to normal, Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said.
“There are a lot of people in our organization that believe that when the city finds itself in a stable position and they’re working under a contract again and not an imposition, and that, kind of, the job goes back to normal, things will improve,” Burguan said. ” I don’t disagree. My concern is the process to get back. I think it’s easy to arbitrarily say that it’ll all get better when an (agreement) gets signed, (or) when the city emerges from bankruptcy, but when you talk about the psychology of folks, I’m just not foolish enough to think it changes like that.”
The workload of San Bernardino police will remain high compared to other police forces, and the culture of the department will change, Burguan said –not just because of San Bernardino’s situation but because of nationwide changes causing the use of body cameras, different training and more.
The first wave of people leaving the department was good, Burguan said –it eased the series of budget reductions that reduced the number of authorized police positions to 240, compared to 254 who were on the force in 2012. (The peak number of officers employed at the end of a year was 328 in 2008, and it’s steadily declined each year since 2010, Human Resources figures show.)
But now, Burguan said, he’s trying to hire up to that 240, with about 25 vacancies.
“The problem is we have not been able to turn the spigot off,” he said. “The rank-and-file is feeling the effect of that. You’ve got a lot more demands on people. That’s why our response times tend to be a little but slower.”
For emergency calls –such as a crime in progress –the time from when the call is placed until officers arrive on scene now takes from five to six minutes, compared to 2009 when response times were between four-and-a-half and five minutes, he said.
“The problem is that the report-call type stuff, those are on average two hours,” he said. “That’s the average, which means there’s times people are waiting five, six hours.”
Efforts to reduce that include hiring more civilians, particularly in investigative roles in the detective bureau, freeing up uniformed officers and “gun toters” to be on patrol.
For both departments, and for the rest of the city, much of the rest is tied up in a Plan of Adjustment that city leaders are set to unveil this month and present to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge by a May 30 deadline.
“The city needs to change,” Davis said, referring to community engagement meetings where people listed a variety of problems in the city. “There was clearly the message that change was overdue. So it’s not just specific to fire, or to police, but we will have to make changes.”