Palo Alto's firefighters union has gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that would prevent the city from easily thinning the fire department's ranks from 2009-10 levels and closing or relocating stations.
City officials would still be able to propose staffing reductions and station closures, but the measure would require the city council to hold public hearings and ultimately leave any decisions in the hands of voters.
The development is a victory for firefighters at a time when the city is looking at across-the-board cuts to resolve a $7.3 million deficit. If it passes, the measure would protect fire service while other departments make reductions.
City Clerk Donna Grider said her initial estimate was that the union had obtained 6,154 signatures of Palo Alto residents. The firefighters needed to gather 5,446 signatures to place the measure on the ballot. The union had also gathered signatures, which will not be counted, of residents from nearby cities, including East Palo Alto and Mountain View, Grider said.
Grider took the petition to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Wednesday morning to have the signatures validated. Election code allows the county up to 30 days to verify the signatures, she said.
Tony Spitaleri, president of Palo Alto Fire Fighters Local 1319, said the union submitted more than 7,300 signatures to the city clerk's office Tuesday afternoon, and that "the large majority of the population was supportive in having a debate over the issue."
Spitaleri said he was satisfied with the outcome of a city council finance committee meeting Monday in which committee members heard a proposal by fire Chief Nick Marinaro to cut nearly $490,000 in costs by eliminating three fire inspectors and a deputy fire chief position, but decided to keep the fire department's budget as originally proposed. Marinaro's proposal was made at the request of the committee, which had asked the department to explore ways to reduce its budget by 4 percent to help trim the city's $7.3 million deficit.
The city is spending $26 million on fire service this year, about 18 percent of its total general fund operating budget. The union's 109 full-time employees earn an average of $105,000 in salary and $21,000 in overtime and holiday pay, with a total compensation of $178,000 including benefits.
Grider has estimated it would cost $190,000 to hold an election in November. Most of the council members have came out against the union's measure, citing the cost and saying it would keep them from being able to do their jobs. Spitaleri has argued council members are concerned about money, when they should be focusing on the safety of the community.
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