Union Leader Randy Sekany pounds the table and rails about the way the city spends money.
“I mean, $150,000 on ergonomic chairs? When you’re firing people? When you’ve cut back how many employees? There’s not a few spare chairs around? Really?”
Sekany circulated a document around City Hall headlined “City Spending Gone Wild,” which details more than $7 million worth of expenditures on a range of items and services, from hybrid Priuses to real estate assessments. The union assembled the numbers in response to City Manager Debra Figone’s request that they take a 10 percent pay cut, reduce the number of engine companies from 34 to 29 and lay off 80-plus sworn firefighters.
The document highlights 36 city contracts that the union sees as questionable, or at least politically embarrassing.
“This money is being spent with no oversight by the city council,” Sekany says, making a pointed suggestion that the city should look into its own spending before asking the local firefighters he represents to dig into their own pockets to help close San Jose’s $116.2 million budget deficit.
In a move no doubt planned to influence public opinion amid budget negotiations, the firefighters are holding an event at the Communications Hill Fire Station in San Jose at 11:30am Wednesday, April 14. The union is spinning its campaign as a safety issue.
“That’s why were engaging this so hard, because in the end, the number one deal that I have to look out for is firefighter safety,” Sekany says. “The longer it takes you to get to a fire, the more dangerous it is for the citizens, for the property and for the firefighter.
“It’s like in that movie Shrek, when Lord Farquaad says, ‘Well, I’m willing to put all your lives at risk, and some of you may die, but that’s a tragedy that I’ll live with.’ You can’t take out 15, 20 percent of the firefighters and have us go, ‘That’s OK with us.’”
The “Spending Gone Wild” document was put together for Local 230 by the consulting firm run by Tom Saggau and Dustin DeRollo. They gathered their data from the city manager’s December 2009 Contract Approval Authority Report. Among the $7,216,822 in contracts detailed in the document are $150,000 for ergonomic chairs, $600,000 for “adult and children’s DVDs,” and a $180,500 grant to the annual Rock ’N’ Roll Half Marathon.
It also shows the city spent $1,134,966 on hybrid cars purchased in Sunnyvale and Albany, along with eight $250,000 consultant contracts, mostly having to do with real estate services.
All of the contracts being questioned by the union were authorized by Figone at her discretion. Since 2007, only contracts spending more than $250,000 have to be approved by the city council. Before that, the maximum amount that could be spent on non-council-approved contracts was $100,000. Until the late 1980s, the city manager’s discretionary spending limit was $20,000.
In light of the budget deficit, Councilmembers Nora Campos, Ash Kalra and Kansen Chu recently signed a proposal in the Rules Committee that tried to cut Figone’s contract authority in half. Mayor Chuck Reed, who chairs the committee, killed it.
Business As Usual
Figone declined a request to be interviewed. But her de-facto spokesman, communications director Tom Manheim, says the numbers shown in the union-circulated document do not accurately reflect what the city actually spent. According to Manheim, the figures are the “caps” allocated rather than real spending amounts.
The actual amount spent, according to Manheim’s documents, was $4,323,569. At the end of the year, the unused money goes back into whatever fund it originally came from, he says.
“There are a lot of very good substantive reasons as to why this money is being spent,” he says. He points to the $150,000 contract for ergonomic chairs, explaining that it was an effort to keep employees with carpal tunnel syndrome injuries off of the city’s even more costly workers’ compensation roles.
Manheim says the $600,000 slotted to be spent on DVDs was necessary to supply public libraries. The city actually spent $514,898. The hybrid vehicles were purchased from out-of-town dealers because they gave the city better prices, he says.
“When you’re in a bidding situation, we don’t have the luxury of going, ‘Oh, we don’t want to go with you,” he says.
The firefighters document also mentions several $250,000 real estate consultant contracts that they found suspicious.
“I see consultant after consultant after consultant on appraisal services,” Sekany says. “I mean, I know that if you hire six people to do apparently the same amount of work, it’s usually not as economically efficient as hiring one person,” he says. “I don’t hire six plumbers to do the same job.”
Manheim responds that the city allocates these contracts with appraisal companies and consultants only on a “just-in-case” basis. In fact, he says four of the $250,000 contracts highlighted are scheduled to run out in 2012, with no money spent.
“Those balances are what we have been using to reduce the deficit,” he says. “Over the last eight, nine years, there is always money left over from contacts that we didn’t end up using.”
Sekany says the firefighters have proposed other ways to save the city money other then pay cuts and layoffs. They include deferring their annual uniform allowance and reducing their amount of daily vacation slots. The city is currently looking into these proposals, but Sekany says that, so far, their ideas have largely been rebuffed.
All told, the union’s proposals would come to a little over a million dollars. The total of the contracts outlined in “City Spending Gone Wild” only adds up to a little over $7 million—loose change compared to the $116.2 million quagmire that the city is still trudging through.
Still, Sekany says the city should be doing anything and everything in its power to keep the firefighters employed.
“My firefighters say that there is a credibility gap here,” he concludes. “You’re either broke, or you ain’t.”