Sept. 25 2013 09:32 AM

Why the city might not be ready for the next big blaze

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The fleet maintenance yard, where staffing levels have compromised the city’s ability to repair reserve fire engines.
Photo courtesy of AFSCME Local 127

San Diego's no stranger to raging fires. One of the largest in California history, the Cedar fire, ripped through the county in 2003. During the 2007 wildfires, hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of acres in the region burned.

While this year's record-dry conditions have left thousands of acres covered in brittle vegetation, San Diego fire officials say the city could be significantly handicapped in the event of a large emergency. A recent inability to keep up with basic repairs has dangerously limited the number of vehicles available to the fire department, fire officials say.

"For approximately the past year, it has been a challenge to maintain the required number of frontline trucks or reserve engines in service due to many factors, including the loss of several mechanics," says San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainer.

The department, which "normally" has 32 reserve engines at its disposal, has been operating during the last six months with an average of less than three, Mainer says.

"We have been able to keep the city's front-line fleet operational," he says. "We have, at times, limited our contribution to mutual-aid requests outside our region and, to some degree, have also constrained our ability to contribute to mutual aid within the region."

Recently, the fire department provided three fire engines to help fight the 250-acre Lyons Fire in East County. However, in doing so, the department had no reserve engines available, leaving the city at risk.

At the same time, if the blaze had been larger, the city would not have been able to provide more assistance, says Brian Fennessy, assistant chief of operations with the San Diego Fire Department.

"We have dodged a bullet multiple times this fire season in terms of our having to decline participation in a strike-team assignment, due to the limitations in having reserve apparatus available," he says.

Stop-gap measures have been taken by the city to increase the number of backup vehicles, fire officials say. As of the last point-in-time count, the city had five reserve engines operational.

So, why is this happening? 

Keeping up with repairs on the city's fire engines is the job of Fleet Maintenance Services, which is responsible for about 4,000 city vehicles, including police and trash collection. During the past year, the division of fleet services that maintains fire vehicles lost five of 17 employees due to attrition. The city didn't replace those employees, and it's not clear when or if it ever will.

Two years ago, fleet services agreed to eliminate 92 of the department's 249 positions, under a process called "managed competition." The restructuring, which still requires laying off roughly 26 people, is expected to be complete by next July, city officials say. Under the fleet-services managed-competition bid, the city is expected to save roughly $4 million annually, bringing the department's total cost this year to about $51.7 million.

Then-Mayor Jerry Sanders hailed the deal as a win for fiscal responsibility.

However, according to a draft city document that was never released to the public but was obtained recently by CityBeat, under managed competition, city employees felt pressured by management to accept cuts that workers said were unsustainable and that eventually proved unnecessary to win the contract.

The report, which was compiled under former Mayor Bob Filner, states that city workers repeatedly expressed concern that "the proposal was developed unilaterally by management, does not adequately reflect employee input and represents a solution that employees view as not viable to implement."

Interim mayor Todd Gloria's office declined multiple requests for interviews with city staff on the topic. An email with one-sentence answers was provided in response to submitted questions.

The city declined to say whether fleet services was functioning adequately but maintained that once the restructuring was final, the department would meet its contract obligations.

Under managed competition, city leaders can allow private companies to bid on public-service contracts held by city employees. In an effort to keep their jobs, city management and employees submit their own proposal. While the Mayor's office has the final say on who wins the contract, a private-sector bid must cost at least 10 percent less than the public proposal to qualify.

According to the report, employees with fleet services were so dissatisfied with management's bid on their behalf that they submitted an alternate proposal. The report reads: "In preparing the first proposal, management had brought in a subject matter expert consultant to assist with proposal efforts and did not adequately include employees in the development process."

While the employees' alternate proposal beat out the lowest private-sector bid, the report says, the city selected management's original harsher bid.

Union leaders representing the employees continue to maintain the cuts are unsustainable and were forced on workers by management.

"What happened here is, a gun was put to my peoples' head, and they were told either some of us lose our jobs or all of us will," says Carlos Mejia, the union representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 127.

According to a CityBeat analysis of city budget documents and data from the report, fleet services didn't need to make any cuts to win the contract. The employees could have bid 20 percent (roughly $10 million) higher and still won the competition.

"I feel that management came in with the idea that they had to make a cut and they had to basically put a good amount of money on the table in order to satisfy public officials," Mejia says. "I truly do feel we could have put together a bid that would have been reflective of the true needs and been successful."

A spokesperson for Gloria writes in an email that all cuts were necessary and reflected "best management practices."

However, the Filner report shows a trend of deep public-sector cuts unnecessary to prevail in the managed competition process:

• Employees with publishing services agreed to a budget cut of roughly $1.08 million, underbidding the private sector by 57 percent.

• Employees with landfill operations agreed to a cut of roughly $2.7 million, underbidding the private sector by 28 percent.

• Employees with street and sidewalk maintenance slashed their budget by about $870,000, underbidding the private sector by 194 percent.

"When those bids came in, and every time there were significant cuts, we scratched our heads and thought, ‘Is this sustainable?' says city Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin. "But there's no way for them to know what the private sector is going to do."

It's still not clear how managed competition will ultimately affect fleet services' ability to maintain crucial city vehicles, such as fire engines. But the bidding process' ability to safely and effectively deliver city services is under scrutiny.

"What managed comp doesn't allow you to do is have a conversation about what is the desirable service level," Tevlin says. "But there is a very high incentive for management and employees to retain their jobs."


Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersonsmith.

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