Thursday, February 16, 2012

Grand jury blasts San Mateo County supes for not pursuing fire service deal with San Carlos

By Bonnie Eslinger - Daily News Staff Writer

Two San Mateo County supervisors last year blew a chance to save a lot of money by passing up on San Carlos' request to subcontract fire services through the county's agreement with the state forestry department, according to a civil grand jury report released Wednesday.

Such an arrangement with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, could have reaped $650,000 per year for the county and saved San Carlos $1.4 million a year, the report noted.

"That seemed to be on a path that was somehow shortcut or short-circuited prematurely," grand jury Foreman Bruce MacMillan said about Adrienne Tissier and Carole Groom's failure to bring the request to the full board of supervisors. "Staff had indicated there was some significant dollars that could be saved by the city and the county and these days the county has challenges as far as its revenues are concerned. That's the twist we had on it, why was this discussion dropped somewhat abruptly?"

The fumble was intentional, San Carlos Mayor Andy Klein charged Wednesday. As members of the board's finance committee, Tissier and Groom buckled under pressure from the union representing the city's firefighters, he said. San Carlos subsequently dismantled its joint fire department with Belmont and created a hybrid department managed by Redwood City Fire Department command staff.

"They caved into the union and political pressure," Klein said. "They didn't want to upset their financial supporters -- the people who back their campaigns."

In its findings the grand jury did conclude there was "significant pressure from the local union to not consider Cal Fire as an outsource alternative for municipal fire protection," but did not accuse Tissier and Groom of yielding to the demands of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 2400.

MacMillan diplomatically sidestepped the question Wednesday.

"Clearly the unions, they have a job to do; part of that job is making it known that they don't want their individuals replaced or displaced or restructured. I understand that perfectly," he said. "Whether that influenced -- that's the one that's the tipping point -- someone will have to reach that conclusion themselves."

Groom insisted Wednesday that Local 2400's opposition to using Cal Fire employees in San Carlos did not influence the committee's decision to reject the proposal last February. She said she stands by the justification she gave then -- that cities can reduce costs by partnering with each other.

"That was the only reason," she said. "I was not pressured."

When asked about the potential revenue for the county, Groom said she did not remember being told about that benefit.

Tissier did not respond to an email and calls for comment.

San Carlos went directly to Cal Fire to negotiate a contract for fire services but the state agency backed off, explaining in a letter it feared there could be costly legal challenges because of "concern" from regional legislators and "significant opposition" from local labor organizations, the grand jury noted.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said although labor opposition was one concern, the agency's main reason for not taking on San Carlos was that the arrangement didn't financially pencil out. The county is in a better position to extend its existing fire services in unincorporated areas where stations already are staffed by state firefighters than into San Carlos, she said. It would have been too costly to set up a new department in the city for Cal Fire, she said. "We don't want to create a bunch of (service) islands,"

Cal Fire pays its employees less than city fire departments pay theirs, according to the grand jury.

Since the county's contract with Cal Fire expires on June 30, the supervisors should add a provision to the next contract allowing cities to subcontract for Cal Fire services when such an arrangement benefits both, the grand jury recommended.

Groom said she likely would not support such a proposal. Local 2400 president Tony Slimick did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Email Bonnie Eslinger at

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