Fire Union Pushing Initiative to Automatically Fund Sac Fire

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, November 10, 2008

Fire fighter: “How you folks doing?”
Voter: “Good.”
Outside a Sacramento polling place on Election Day, next to sign-waivers from Kevin Johnson’s mayoral campaign and No on Proposition 8, a couple of off-duty fire fighters approached voters.
Fire fighter: “We’re gathering signatures to see if the voting public is interested in possibly putting something on the ballot that would deal with closures and staffing levels.”
Voter: “For sure.”
The fire department took a four percent cut this fiscal year – the smallest of any city department.  But that’s still causing Sacramento to close one fire engine at a time on a rolling basis, resulting in longer response times.  Union spokesman Chris Harvey says the initiative’s goal is to restore service levels to where they were before.
Harvey: “The measure would not identify any special source of funding and it wouldn’t raise taxes.  All it does is direct the city council that they have to spend X amount of dollars to keep the fire department open.” 
During his campaign, Mayor-elect Kevin Johnson won the union’s endorsement by signing a pledge to support the initiative.  It hasn’t been written yet but will be known as the Neighborhood Firehouse Protection Act.  But if such a measure becomes law, Johnson and the city council could find themselves with fewer options to balance the budget.
Isenberg: “Earmarking of anything – reserving of money for any category – looks good the day you do it and creates problems the day afterward.” 
That’s Phil Isenberg, a former Sacramento mayor and California Assemblyman.  He says the state and cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have tried similar “autopilot” spending measures – and the results are clear.
Isenberg: “Anything that limits the ability of elected officials to make judgments as to priorities tends to make it extraordinarily difficult in bad economic times to do anything that seems fair.  Some programs are totally free of reductions at all; others get disproportionate cuts.” 
Like parks and recreation, libraries or even police, Isenberg says.  But Chris Harvey says it’s time to weigh other city services – and council members’ pet projects – against fighting fires.
Harvey: “It’s a matter of opinion whether or not those are as important as keeping fire stations open.  So we don’t see it as tying the city council’s hands so much as just saying, you can’t make public safety discretionary.  It has to be your priority.” 
Of course, this measure would only cover fire services – and leave the police department out.  But the police union says that’s fine with them.  They’re putting their faith in the city council – and mayor-elect Kevin Johnson, who says restoring public safety funds is his top priority.