By Peter Bryan
These times continue to be very challenging fiscally for local governments, and especially for many fire departments. We are seeing brownouts, rotating station closures, layoffs, imposed contracts, and employment contracts declared invalid during bankruptcy proceedings. These actions are being taken in an effort to "balance the budget," and have rarely been seen during the career of many public safety professionals, even the older and more experienced.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it is time to consider negotiations based on a concept of "revenue changes" similar to how we address operational costs. In good years, we generally increase our budgeted expenditures to match demands for service to the needed resources and to improve service. In difficult fiscal times, we reduce our operational costs to a level where the expenditures do not exceed projected revenues.
This idea could be explored in those agencies that have already made all the "possible" budget reductions, and negotiations are near the "last, best, and final" offer. Although such an agency is far from a balanced budget, it is facing serious and significant staffing reductions, and reducing "personnel costs" would "fix the problem." This idea is not feasible if the agency is already facing a significant fiscal event and if it is already too late to prevent any inevitable significant staffing reductions. This idea is not feasible if it will not "fix the problem," in which case no matter what the budget, significant staffing reductions will be a reality. If significant staffing reductions are a reality, many agencies will decide to effect the reductions and leave the remaining employees "whole" since they will be asked to do "more with less."
Why would we want to do this? The answer is discussed below, but let's presume that the public good is priority #1. We, the managers especially, are all responsible for working to ensure that the expenses are reasonable and justifiable, and that the expenses do not exceed the revenues. We have an obligation to provide services to the public, and providing critical services requires a stable level of staffing. Significant staffing reductions undermine the primary obligation to provide a "necessary" level of services. If revenues decrease, the agency is forced to reduce its expenses. Since most costs of an agency are for personnel and related benefits, then it follows that "personnel costs" could be reduced to maintain "necessary" staffing levels and services, before effecting significant staffing reductions.
To be clear, NO effective fire chief wants to reduce staffing levels, ever. Fire chiefs understand that it is our personnel who deliver safety and support services each and every day to the public. Having said this, the tough issues should be open for discussion and negotiation before significant staffing reductions occur that will affect service levels. Much more could be said here, but the point is that these are critical fiscal times for some fire departments.
"Saving" the level of service provided to the community could also mean making the difference by bringing management and labor together and being part of a public, realized solution. This could be much bigger than just positive public relations, and could deliver dividends for the agency for years to come. In some communities, the public does not understand the job the fire service performs, does not understand the salary and benefits, and may in some instances resent those costs.
Just a minute for a budget philosophy note: most fiscal managers are conservative in their estimated revenues (estimating lower that expected "actuals"), and exacting in costs or expenditures (expenses are generally exact or slightly high, based on past fiscal years, rather than low). We can confirm the previous year's expenses once the books are closed and can fairly accurately estimate any increases based on many fiscal factors. Revenue estimates may never be agreed on until year end, but someone needs to make the estimate decision and we need to accept that it is ultimately someone's responsibility.
So how COULD revenue change-based negotiations work? Are there personnel costs that could be negotiated to save staffing levels? This article will not explore salaries themselves, because generally all comparisons and the basis for hiring are based on salary, any form of a salary reduction is most likely an imposed contract issue, and labor would most likely not enter into salary discussions knowing that it would affect personnel instantly and not be accepted in any form. Here are just a few "talking points" to begin this discussion.
- Benefits such as medical premiums and employee paid retirement contributions and other costly items are paid for by the employee at some level.
- Performance or merit increases continue.
- When fiscal times change (turn around for the positive), "employee paid benefits" are reinstated to the previous benefit level based on a formula that includes the percentage of revenue increase estimates.
- New personnel are not hired until the employee paid benefits are returned to the "pre-reduction" level. Any staffing reductions/layoffs are not rehired until the paid benefits are corrected, similar to new hiring. Operational cost increases are not effected until the paid benefits are corrected, similar to new hiring.
- Operational costs that are levied to the fire department that cannot be controlled (e.g., such as insurance, etc.) are the only adjustments.
- The benefit "adjustments" are tracked by both labor and management in very transparent bookkeeping. Revenues are examined by both labor and management when the year-end books are closed and the estimates are compared to actuals.
- Figures are agreed to by labor and management or an arbitrator, if agreement cannot be reached.
So, what is the purpose of changing the conventional negotiations during critical fiscal times? If we as fire service professionals truly believe that we make operational decisions based first on what is best for the community served and only secondly the organization's needs as a whole and individual member needs, we would rather reduce benefits before reducing staffing levels. When we do not put the community needs first, we MAY lose public support beyond repair. We should try to demonstrate that the community needs are Mission #1.
Any such concept would REQUIRE COMPLETE HONESTY, open fiscal records, and a GENUINE ATTEMPT at TRUST. Anything less will never have a chance of working.
These are just presented as concepts for discussion.
MORE PETER BRYAN
- Effective and Simple Performance Evaluations for Fire Service Personnel
- Transition, Merger, Consolidation: Managing Fire Service Changes
- You Really CAN Reduce Fixed Public Safety Costs
- Implementing Policies and Rules Can Help Rebuild Public Trust in Government
PETER BRYAN, a retired chief and a fire protection consultant, is a 37-year veteran of the fire and emergency services. He served as chief for the Norco, Monrovia, Rancho Cucamonga, and Wheatland (CA) Fire Departments. He is experienced in fiscal management; revenues and fees; and wellness, fitness, and workers' compensation programs.