Where Have All the Officers Gone? 

Emeryville firefighters and police officers cite low pay and budgets for the exodus from their ranks. City hall doesn't buy it.

When a developmentally disabled woman disappeared at IKEA on a recent Saturday night, half of Emeryville's on-duty police force rushed inside to help find her.

That was two officers.

After an hour-long search, officers found the missing woman hiding behind some lights and shower curtains. But if Acting Sergeant Joel Hannon hadn't worked late and called in an officer from the graveyard shift, the city's entire patrol staff would have been stuck in a store where customers rely on folding maps to find their way around.

That evening's shift was two officers and one dog short of a full staff. Most other shifts at the Emeryville Police Department are equally understaffed. Officers are quitting the department and going to work in cities that offer higher wages and better benefits, leaving vacancies equal to nearly one-fourth of the police department staff. Unprecedented numbers of city firefighters also are leaving. In the past four years, the department has lost thirteen firefighters -- half its already shrunken staff.

Police and firefighters worry that the high turnover will interfere with their ability to respond to calls from those who live, work, and shop in Emeryville. "Any significant call leaves two people on the streets," said Sergeant Greg Bowman, president of Emeryville Police Officers Association, Local 790. "We need to be competitive with other departments to retain and recruit officers, and we are not."

Among firefighters, Oakland and Emeryville had nearly identical wages five years ago, according to Steve Splendorio, the president of International Association of Firefighters Local 55, which represents Emeryville firefighters. But by 2000, even before Oakland signed its new contract with wage and benefits increases, an Oakland firefighter made about $75,000 a year in basic wages -- $17,000 more than an Emeryville fighter.

Emeryville firefighters haven't yet reached an agreement with the city after seventeen months of negotiations. Last month they brought in a third-party mediator to help settle disputes over wages and benefits. But if they don't reach an agreement, they cannot strike. Under legislation signed last year by Governor Gray Davis, the dispute would go to arbitration hearings in which the contract ultimately would be decided by a state arbitrator.

Emeryville City Manager John Flores declined to provide wage-comparison studies, but he said Emeryville firefighters and police have salaries competitive with similar personnel working for other area departments. However, last year Local 55 conducted its own survey and concluded that Emeryville was ranked ninth out of fifteen larger Bay Area cities when only wages were considered, with a fully trained Emeryville firefighter making about $58,000 each year. And when benefits and longevity pay were included, Emeryville ranked third from last, slightly ahead of equally tiny Albany and Piedmont, both of which have since signed new contracts.

Flores described Emeryville's fire department as "a very expensive insurance policy," noting that the city spends more than half of its $20 million budget on public safety each year. "Think about $75,000 for an employee right out of high school," Flores said. "That's what a firefighter can be. To me, something is wrong when we pay our teachers $35,000 and a firefighter makes more than $50,000."

The city manager accuses the firefighters' union of "cherry picking" statistics to make their wages look worse, and he said the city has made them a generous offer that he is surprised the firefighters haven't agreed to take. "We've gone as far as we can go with our offer," he said.

Emeryville police, meanwhile, signed a five-year contract with the city in July 2000, but that hasn't slowed the exodus of officers. In the last two months alone, four of Emeryville's most senior police officers left to work for nearby cities or BART.

A fully trained Emeryville police officer now starts at about $60,000 each year, which is $5,000 less than one working in Oakland. And Emeryville officers pay about ten percent of their salary toward medical benefits, whereas in Oakland the city pays. Sergeant Bob Valladon, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, says trained Oakland officers start at about $64,000, then get significant increases based on bilingual skills, college degrees, and willingness to work less-popular shifts. But some patrol officers in Oakland make more than $100,000 each year.

The grievances of Emeryville's finest go beyond wages. Officer Jason Bosetti, who has served on the force for eight years, says the city could make leaving a much more difficult decision for officers by adopting an alternative work schedule, a popular plan that allows officers to work longer shifts for fewer days each week. In cities such as Oakland and Berkeley, officers are able to work just three or four days a week, for twelve to ten hours each day. "It really isn't just about the money," Bosetti said.

At a time of heightened sensitivity to such issues, firefighters and police officers have gone out of their way to make public safety the bottom-line issue. Spokesmen from both departments warn of dire consequences if either department is poorly staffed or funded. "I hope it doesn't take something catastrophic to show what Flores has done to that department," said Local 55's Splendorio, an Oakland firefighter more willing to be quoted than any of the Emeryville firefighters or police officers interviewed.

Splendorio complained that Emeryville's leadership doesn't understand the importance of maintaining a stable fire department. He said Emeryville needs a strong team because the fast-growing city has an unusually diverse combination of residential neighborhoods, industrial areas, retail complexes, office buildings, and transportation facilities.

But as the city has grown, its fire department has shrunk. Several decades ago, Emeryville used to have 42 firefighters on staff; now it has 27 authorized positions. And Local 55 lawyer David Holsberry noted that when contract negotiations began with the city in July 2000, firefighters went to 12,000 emergency calls each year. By the end of this year, they will have responded to more than 15,000, he said. Firefighters say a house fire in Oakland will bring eighteen firefighters to the scene, while a similar emergency in Emeryville attracts only seven.

Working conditions aren't a major topic of dispute, but they too are a sore point for Emeryville firefighters. The heater at the Hollis Street station has been broken for more than a year. And one union member said half of Emeryville's opticons -- devices used by firefighters to control traffic lights in the city -- are broken. Fire engines often change course to avoid traffic accidents. "I've driven on the wrong side of the street more times in the past few years than in all other thirty-some together," said the firefighter, who asked not to be identified out of fear of reprisals.

But Flores says Emeryville is well-prepared to deal with emergencies. "If you think of having 37 sworn police officers in one square mile -- that's a lot, let me tell you," Flores said. "We have two fire companies in one square mile. Unheard of. The number of fire calls we have per day, on average, is only four."

The city manager said Emeryville always has had high turnover rates in its fire and police departments. "A lot of people move on to larger cities where they have more opportunities," he said.

Flores said he expects the fire department to stabilize soon. Fewer firefighters will be leaving in the future because the market for firefighters trained as paramedics, which blossomed in the mid-1990s, will slow down as larger departments fill their vacancies, according to Flores.

But police and firefighters said Flores' confidence is misplaced. They warn that more frustrated coworkers are planning to quit because of plummeting morale. "I think you're going to see a lot more people leaving," said one officer. "This department is going to be nothing but a training ground."

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