By Ashly McGlone
SAN RAMON -- The new chief of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District is shaking things up in his first three months on the job and has already managed to reduce district spending by millions of dollars.
Fire Chief Paige Meyer took the top post March 18 and since then has reached a long sought-after deal with the firefighter's union that calls for steep concessions. He also put forth a leaner, balanced budget for the first time in years, cutting what he determined to be unnecessary expenses given the district's harsh financial outlook.
Meyer, who most recently served as chief of Vallejo's city fire department, lived through Vallejo's 2008 bankruptcy and felt the fallout first hand. After arriving in San Ramon, he combed through the books with a financial analyst and found places to cut back to ensure the district remains fiscally solvent in the long-term, he said.
"We are being more prudent," said Meyer, 43. "We're becoming more progressive and more efficient because we're facing an economic challenge."
Among them: growing retiree costs, rising health care costs and decreased property tax revenue, the district's primary revenue source. The district received $3.4 million, or 7 percent, less in property tax revenue in the 2012-13 fiscal year than it did in 2008-09, and its unfunded liability for post-employment health benefits topped $75 million at its last assessment in July 2011, officials said.
Meyer and a financial analyst met with members of the district's sole union -- representing firefighters, captains, engineers, inspectors and dispatchers -- on multiple occasions in May.
"We looked at the numbers. We peeled back every page, looked at the pension issues, the unfunded liability and did it right in front of the labor negotiators," said Meyer, who spent nine of his 15 years in Vallejo negotiating for the labor union. "It's about openness, honest information. We've got to agree on the facts."
The results were drastic. For the first time in the district, members of the 140-member union, Meyer and 40 other unrepresented employees would contribute to their health care costs and pension benefits.
Under the terms of the contract that was signed May 22 and expires June 30, 2018, safety employees will contribute 4 percent of their pay toward their pension costs, 8 percent next year and 12 percent in 2015. Non-safety employees will kick in 4 percent this year and 8 percent next year. The employee pension contributions will save the district $2.4 million annually by 2015-16, officials estimate.
Firefighters also agreed to forgo raises for the next five years, though salary and health benefits can be renegotiated as early as 2015, the agreement states. Firefighters last saw their pay rise a total of 10.5 percent from 2007 to 2009.
Minimum staffing levels were also reduced this year and will decrease again in 2015, allowing the chief to hire fewer firefighters this year and consider eliminating positions to be vacated by retirees in the future, saving as much as $2 million annually by 2015-16, officials estimate.
As for health care, everyone began paying 8 percent of their monthly premium July 1, including 137 retirees entitled to the same health coverage as current employees. In a letter from Meyer on June 7, retirees were notified they too would be paying a portion of their health premiums for the first time.
Employee and retiree contributions will go to a trust solely for post-retirement benefits, the contract states.
"Sacrificing wages and contributing toward medical, we are responding to the public because the public wants that. We are responding to the economic realities that are around us," said union president Mike Mohun, who returned to the presidency for the second time in October.
"It is not a labor thing. It's not an administrator thing. It's not a chief thing ... (It's) the right thing for this community and the people we have the privilege of serving."
The district's budget, approved by the board June 26, freezes multiple vacant positions, including a $391,912 assistant fire chief, eliminates a $55,000 legislative advocate and reduces the legal fees budget by $55,000. Scheduled replacement for a functioning water tender will also be postponed, for $590,000 in savings, and the district will allocate $100,000 toward costs related to construction of a new Alamo fire station instead of $300,000. The district had initially planned to issue revenue bonds to pay for the station, a debt Meyer has chosen not to pursue.
The 2013-14 budget leaves the 170-square-mile district with about $13,000 left over.
As for the budget cuts, Mohun said, "I think this chief is putting his money where his mouth is. He is doing what's right for the community."
Meyer said he isn't finished yet and is "looking at reorganization of the entire agency over the next 12 months."
Ashly McGlone covers San Ramon. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.