Playing with fire
Face to face talks between city and county change nothing
A long awaited joint meeting of the Reno City Council and the Washoe County Commission on the county’s plan to deconsolidate fire services fizzled out Monday.
The meeting, held after several requests by the city, turned out not to have everything on the table—and certainly not the county’s decision to end consolidated services. The meeting ended with a vague plan to have the staffs meet jointly to plan cooperation in advance of another joint meeting—and that meeting may not even take place.
“And if there isn’t anything to talk about, we won’t meet,” County Commissioner John Breternitz said at the end of the Monday session.
The city offered ideas for cooperation and the county offered its own, but they kept running up against the county’s implacable determination to deconsolidate fire services. County commissioners said they were willing to work with the city, but only after deconsolidation, not as a way to prevent it.
The fire issue was the last item on the meeting agenda. First the Reno and Washoe governing bodies, joined by the Sparks City Council, went through five less contentious items, though tension was just below the surface. The tone of the debate on the first item, on flood control, is indicated by a statement from Sparks Councilmember Ron Smith after comments by Reno Councilmember David Aiazzi: “I’m not going to let Mr. Aiazzi get away with some of the things he’s been saying.” Later items were less touchy and even light-hearted, particularly when the sound of a car horn for some reason kept beeping over the public address system.
The city and county have been sparring for a year over the county’s planned withdrawal from consolidated fire services. Eleven years ago, county and city consolidated fire services, with the city handling actual administration of the new system. That dominant role for the city was the subject of 2009-2011 city/county talks that did not produce satisfaction for the county. On June 28, 2011, the county commission voted to break away.
City officials always seemed to hold out hope that the commission majority on the issue—four of the five commissioners—could be convinced to change their minds. Meanwhile, at least one outlying area is exploring annexation to the city, which would further reduce county revenue in a recession.
A few days before the meeting, Reno Mayor Robert Cashell suggested the county was trying to break the firefighters union and said the city had no interest in joining such an effort. Nothing at the joint meeting indicated Cashell was wrong. The county has been critical of requirements for four-person fire crews and wants them changed.
“With all due respect, I want nothing to do with your labor agreement,” County Commissioner David Humke said at one point. “When will the city be free of their agreement?” he asked on another occasion.
When the county talked about the need to be in control of all financial elements of the fire protection process, City Councilmember David Aiazzi asked, “What expenditures does the county not control?”
“Labor negotiations, sir,” said county financial consultant Mary Walker.
After more discussion about the county’s ability to plan, Aiazzi asked the question again. Walker replied, “The labor costs, which are about 80 percent.” Aiazzi responded, “But you know the labor costs, which [under the contract] are not going up.”
Deconsolidation brought to the fore intramural disagreements within fire protection. Fire volunteer Lea Wobbe caustically told the two governing boards she was tired of hearing what firefighters will lose under deconsolidation.
“We are losing having our equipment in the shop for weeks and weeks and having nothing done on it because the union will not let the mechanics work on volunteer equipment unless it is on overtime and overtime has been eliminated,” she said. “We are being paged anywhere from three to five minutes after the initial tone went out for the career staff.”
During the public comment period several businesspeople and a carpenters union were represented by construction company president Perry DiLoreto, who said the most important issue in the dispute was acrimony between the competing sides. “Are we in this together or are we not in this together? … There should be no reasonable expectation that good decisions will come out of abrasive and caustic behavior. We are sorry to say that what we are witnessing is not sound political leadership but rather open hostility and confidence-shattering behavior.” He said consolidation should be retained and county grievances addressed in a new agreement.
Retired firefighter Steve Perez said, “I find it ironic that the city of Reno is upset, because they are being asked to provide fire/medical coverage in a couple of areas they are not receiving taxes in. Sierra Fire provided fire and paramedic coverage to both Reno and Truckee Meadow areas without compensation for some seven years due to Reno’s ‘cherry picking’ annexation policy.”
City Councilmembers said repeatedly that the county was overestimating its ability to get a better deal with a separate fire department and that the county’s view of the union is flawed. Reno Councilmember Pierre Hascheff said, “You have a declining revenue base in Truckee Meadows and Sierra Fire.” These are sectors the county will take over in deconsolidation.
Aiazzi said the firefighters have “already agreed to take a 12 percent cut.”
Cashell later said the union has given up about $4 million over the last two years.
Councilmember Dan Gustin said “Their [union] leadership has taken the role of making this work for the community.” He also said the dispute was like a divorce that neither partner wants but cannot back away from.
Councilmember Sharon Zadra said the county’s expectation of better deals is like buying firefighting equipment and expecting the seller to accept less than the full price.
The county commissioners did little to advocate or defend their case, and framed their answers with deconsolidation as a premise. They did not respond to claims that fire service will be lower and more expensive and taxes higher. Breternitz, participating by telephone, said the county’s staff had been instructed to “put our Plan B into effect starting tomorrow.”
Commissioner Bonnie Weber did not really engage on the details, simply saying deconsolidation “should have been no news to anyone here. … We are moving forward with deconsolidation, or divorce.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Aiazzi’s questioning identified about $1.2 million as the amount separating city and county positions, a small amount given the overall cost of fire protection. Aiazzi offered to make a motion giving $1.2 million in service to the outlying areas, but there was no indication from the commissioners that the payment would keep consolidation intact and Cashell, referring to consolidated service, said in evident disgust, “We’re going to break this thing up and put citizens at risk for $1.2 million.”
After it became clear that the meeting was going nowhere, Oakland fire lieutenant Russell Earl, a Washoe County resident, told the governing bodies the consequences of ending consolidation, including a property tax increase and other costs for him and other county residents: “What you have not also addressed is the ISO rating [fire suppression standards]. When we go to three-person engine companies, we’ll become higher, which means every single household in this county will see a significant increase in their homeowners insurance. That hasn’t been factored in. … I can see between a 400 and 800 dollar per year increase to get a lower level of service.”