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The Alameda way

Submitted by on 1, December 16, 2008 – 9:00 amNo Comment

A few weeks ago, the head of Alameda’s firefighters union sent me this editorial questioning city leaders’ financial practices in the face of continuing budget deficits and asserting that the firefighters are not to blame for the city’s financial problems. I checked in with Mayor Beverly Johnson for a response, and … well …

“Alameda has really been living beyond its means in terms of public safety. We’re going to have to figure out how to sustain (it),” Johnson said. “They’ve been very well funded for many years, and we all need to accept that this is a different economic time.”

Public safety costs account for about 70 percent of the city’s general fund budget, Johnson said.

The city and its public safety unions have been in contract negotiations for the past 18 months, and by Johnson’s telling, not much has come of those. And by her telling, there’s more than a little fat in our public safety contracts.

For example, Johnson said public safety employees who opt out of the city’s medical plan get paid an additional $1,100 a month. Public safety workers also get their year’s vacation pay on January 1 (“I was wondering, why do we have all these people retiring on January 3?”) and holiday pay, even for holidays they haven’t worked, she said – all perks that other city employees don’t get.

It’s all part of an old way of doing business that Johnson said needs to go.

“One of the messages I keep sending is, we need to get rid of all the ‘Alameda way’ crap. We need to stop doing things the way they’ve always been done and start doing them the way they should be done,” she said.

“Basically the city needs to decide,” she said. “We’re going to cave in to them or we’re going to do what’s in the best interest of the residents.”

Johnson said she wouldn’t oppose an audit of the city’s financial practices like the one called for in that editorial (an annual report on the city’s finances in on the agenda tonight; Johnson said the city’s interim finance director is also making some improvements to the city’s accounting practices). She said the council is working to put the city in a long-term, fiscally sustainable position.

Meanwhile, she said the city has a consultant studying how the police and fire departments are organized. A report is due in February. And tonight’s agenda contains a discussion item on public safety service levels; I’ll get back to you with more on that.

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