When times are good and city coffers bulge with revenues from property taxes and thriving businesses, few look critically at pay packages for city administrators, city attorneys, and police and fire chiefs, even when they top $200,000. This is true in cities as large as Oakland and as tiny as Emeryville. But in lean years, as governments grapple with looming deficits, some small East Bay cities are seeking creative ways to respond to hard times by sharing services and costs, while jealously guarding their independence.
The poster child of these efforts is about to be launched: It’s a year-long pilot project where one fire chief — Edward Tubbs — will split his time between Albany and Piedmont. Albany was scheduled to give its formal approval on March 21 and Piedmont plans to do the same April 4. Emeryville, which already contracts with Piedmont for animal control services and with Oakland for library use, is also looking at sharing services with other fire departments.
Still, the idea of sharing services to save taxpayer funds may not go over well with some residents of small cities who expect and currently receive personal service from their local governments. “If a resident needs to talk to someone at the police department, the police chief will take the call,” noted Piedmont Mayor Dean Barbieri. “The city administrator has one-on-one communication with the residents.”
But tony Piedmont has had city budget worries, too. In fact, financial concerns prompted the early discussions about a shared fire chief with Albany. When explorations began a year ago, Piedmont had projected a deficit, but unanticipated tax revenue from property sales eased the financial threat, Barbieri said. Nonetheless, city officials are continuing down a fiscally prudent path, supporting the shared position as a pilot program.
In Albany, budget concerns also spurred city officials to consider the shared position. The city could be facing a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars, although administrators say they are still crunching numbers. If the state shuts down redevelopment agencies, Albany will face increased budget pressures. By sharing the fire chief, Albany will save $85,000 a year and Piedmont $111,300. Additional savings are possible if the cities decide to write grants, train, or purchase equipment jointly.
This also won’t be Albany’s first joint venture. It shares the Gilman Sports Fields, built on East Bay Regional Parks land, with Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, and Richmond.
Serendipity also played a role in prompting Piedmont and Albany to talk about sharing a fire chief. Marc McGinn, who had been Albany’s fire chief since 1992, is retiring, and Piedmont was looking for a new chief. In fact, when Tubbs took over the Piedmont department six months ago, one of his key assignments was to explore the one-chief-two-city idea. The concept of a shared chief between Albany and Piedmont is not new. It was floated, but not pursued, some fifteen years ago. Other jurisdictions, such as San Bruno and Millbrae, share a chief, as do San Mateo and Foster City. These cities are contiguous, however, while Albany and Piedmont are separated by Berkeley and North Oakland and are about nine miles apart — twenty minutes traveling time when traffic isn’t heavy, Tubbs said.
Part of the challenge Tubbs said he will face is continuing to give residents of both cities the individualized attention they’re used to. But with e-mail and cell phones, he said he’ll be able to stay in touch with residents of both cities if there’s an issue that a fire captain can’t address. And, as always, he’ll be available “twenty-four-seven” for emergencies, he said. “Initially, I see myself having longer days, maybe a longer week,” he said, noting with a smile that his wife worries about his health. Tubbs will be paid for the extra work. His annual salary and benefits will increase by 10 percent, bringing them to $267,000.
Still, Tubbs arguably will have fewer responsibilities overseeing two cities with a combined population of about 29,000 than the fire chiefs of larger cities such as Alameda, Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond. The same could be said of city managers and other top officials of small cities if those cities should consider sharing those services as well at some point.
At the March 7 Albany City Council meeting, where council members unanimously decided to prepare the shared-fire-chief contract (a similar meeting was simultaneously taking place in Piedmont), former Councilman Robert Cheasty conceded the financial motivation behind the move. “Everyone’s looking for ways to manage in very difficult times,” he said. However Cheasty advised the council to take a cautious approach to the year-long experiment. Albany’s three-minute response time should not be affected, he said. “You’re tinkering with a fine-tuned formula that has worked well for the city.”
Emeryville, which, with about 10,000 residents, is roughly the same size as Piedmont, headed off a projected deficit this year by freezing positions, laying off staff, and reducing services, including tree trimming and street sweeping. The 2011-2012 budget isn’t out yet, but what is clear is that city revenue has been hurt by diminishing property, hotel, and sales tax revenue. Moreover, most of Emeryville is a redevelopment area and its budget will be impacted if the governor’s plan to eliminate redevelopment agencies goes through.
For a brief period, Emeryville officials discussed the money-saving idea of creating a single position of public safety administrator to oversee both police and fire departments. But Emeryville police spokesman Brian Head said that since the police chief has no experience in fighting fires or running a fire department, the idea was swiftly rejected. Instead, the city manager promoted then-Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Johnston to chief, and saved funds by eliminating the deputy position.
However, a city task force and a consultant are exploring other options to cut fire department costs and maintain services. “Everything’s on the table,” Johnston said. One idea is contracting for fire services with Berkeley, Oakland, or the county. Union City, Newark, Dublin, and San Leandro currently contract with Alameda County for fire services. Pleasanton and Livermore have a consolidated fire department, as do Moraga and Orinda. Sunnyvale and Rohnert Park each have a police-fire department where staff is cross-trained as police and firefighters.
Another way to save money is to consolidate city and school services. Berkeley does that with its “school parks,” which the public can use after school hours. The Emeryville City Council and city voters, who approved bond financing, are supporting shared physical space between the city and the 800-student school district. They’re building the Center for Community Life, slated to include a K-12 school, a public library, and a community center.