OAKLAND -- Firefighters want to amend Oakland's city charter to prevent future service cuts -- a move that could complicate the city's push to pass a renewed public safety tax in November.

Frustrated by decades of staffing reductions and firehouse closures, firefighters this month will fan through city neighborhoods collecting the more than 20,000 signatures necessary to place a charter amendment on the November ballot.

The measure would set in stone current staffing levels and permanently end rotating brownouts at Oakland's 25 fire stations.

"We think we're at the floor and we would not like to go any lower," union President Dan Robertson said. "We're not asking for more taxes. We're not asking to increase services. We're just asking to maintain the current level of service for the community."

Oakland firefighters work to contain a three-alarm blaze in Oakland on June 8, 2013.
Oakland firefighters work to contain a three-alarm blaze in Oakland on June 8, 2013. (Anda Chu/Staff file)

The initiative, which needs only a simple majority to become law, is not popular inside City Hall.

The firefighters' union contributed about $100,000 to pass the soon-to-expire Measure Y public safety property tax measure in 2004. City leaders fear that if the fire union strikes out on its own this year, it would harm chances to pass a renewed tax measure, which needs a two-thirds majority for passage.

Also, the charter amendment would severely restrict the city's flexibility in dealing with budget deficits by making the fire department off-limits for cuts. The city is projecting a $26 million operating shortfall in 2015 when the council must pass Oakland's next two-year budget.

"We need to be able to adjust," Councilman Noel Gallo said. "Sometimes we cannot afford certain items that we've been supporting all along."

The firefighters' union proposed a nearly identical charter amendment 10 years ago but withdrew it after the staffing requirements were written into the Measure Y tax measure. A separate agreement with the city forbids cuts to fire services until 2017 once rotating fire station closures end this July. The union currently is beginning negotiations on a new labor pact with the city.

The tax measure generates about $20 million a year. Most of the tax proceeds pay for 63 police officer positions, but the measure also funds violence prevention programs and provides $4 million for the fire department.

If voters pass the firefighters' charter amendment in November, the fire department would no longer be dependent on the public safety tax measure. Even if the tax measure failed, the city would be required to find a different pool of money to fully fund fire services.

That worries city leaders who fear they won't be able to pass the public safety tax without strong backing from firefighters. "We all need to stay together," Gallo said. "Otherwise we have a lack of unity and we lose voters."

The union already has trained members in collecting signatures and hired veteran political consultant Larry Tramutola to run its charter amendment campaign.

Robertson declined to discuss whether firefighters might withdraw their ballot measure if they can strike a deal with the city to protect services. He said the union will consider supporting the successor to Measure Y, but its backing might not be as strong as it was 10 years ago.

"We don't have super deep pockets," he said. "We have committed all our resources to get this on the ballot and ensuring an acceptable level of fire protection for the citizens of Oakland."

Like most city services, the fire department has been cut back in the decades since Proposition 13 lowered property tax revenue across the state.

Since 1973, authorized firefighter staffing has dropped from 672 to 488, while total calls have surged from nearly 23,000 to nearly 80,000, according to statistics provided by the union. The department has also closed three stations and lost its fire boat.

The ballot measure would mandate funding to deploy 25 fire engines and seven trucks every day. It also would set in stone requirements that engines be staffed with four firefighters. Several neighboring fire departments, including Alameda County, staff engines with only three firefighters.

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.