El Dorado Hills Fire Board candidate John Peterson arrived in El Dorado Hills four years ago with a mix of firefighting experience earned during a nine-year stint with Redwood City in the 1980s along with sales and marketing experience with Cardinal Health.
The 51-year-old’s experience with the 19th largest private company in the world — with $103 billion in revenue and 32,000 employees, according to the website — is relevant because, he said, “When you work for an organization that’s a leader you see what it takes to be a leader. You learn to understand what it takes to be successful … how to manage dollars, manage relationships, what strategies buyers and sellers use.”
On the service side, Peterson’s resúmé includes several years as a Big Brother. He also put together a teen program in Seattle for a city councilman who later became mayor.
“I was looking for a way to contribute here,” he said, explaining that he’s running to reverse “irresponsible financial decisions that have taken place on the incumbents’ watch.”
Peterson conceded he’s “just started getting involved” locally, and only attended his first fire board meeting the week prior to sitting down with Village Life.
“Rather than admitting they made some errors and promising to fix them, they were defensive in most of their responses,” he said. “They just haven’t really acknowledged that they overspent, but clearly they have.”
In the meeting he attended he said he observed the board being “too concerned with being liked by the fire department and by people they do business with such as salesmen.”
“When you talk about leadership, and specifically a board of directors, you have to understand it’s not a popularity contest,” Peterson said. “Sometimes it’s going to be uncomfortable. You have to be tough and keep the taxpayers and citizens at the forefront of your mind.
“If you’re going to be a leader, you’ve got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he added.
Peterson spent the first five years of his life at the Hillsborough fire station. While other kids played with matchbox fire trucks, he got to play on the real thing. “The only thing between me and the fire truck was our kitchen door,” he said.
That’s because Peterson’s father, a Hillsborough fireman, rented the attached dwelling.
The early exposure had little to do with his eventual decision to pursue a career in the fire service, he said. The Hillsborough chief, who was also his godfather and an influential mentor, was the primary reason he became the youngest firefighter in Redwood City history, barely 19 years old when he pinned on the badge. Later that year he passed the engineer test, setting another “youngest” mark.
Stationed near a commercial area and a low-income residential neighborhood in Redwood City, Peterson saw plenty of action in the early going, but injured his back just five years into a promising career. A frustrating and prolonged conclusion to his fire service career followed.
The injury and subsequent surgery relegated him to administrative work for the next four years and earned him a disability settlement.
Trend toward overspending
According to Peterson, “The long-term financial health of the fire department is 100 percent correlated with the long term financial health of the community,” a fact he doesn’t think the board understands.
“Overstaffing, excessive overtime, high wages and benefits,” are all evidence of a “trend toward overspending,” he said.
During a lengthy interview and followup e-mails with Village Life Peterson proposed “some financial micro-management,” for the district, to include “stronger representation in the financial aspects of running organizations, such as selecting a very tight budget, working within that budget and good purchasing practices.”
The candidate voiced over Village Life’s repeated requests for “stronger, more definitive statements” during the interview. In response, he emphasized by e-mail that if elected he’d be “one vote on a committee,” not a “despotic ruler,” and summarized his fiscal perspective, verbatim, single quotes added for clarity:
“We don’t want to have thinking slanted towards a ‘spend nothing’ approach, and likewise we don’t want an ‘anything the fire dept wants, it gets — here’s our checkbook’ approach either.”
The candidate depicted his position as a “happy middle ground where everybody is a winner,” then proposed a four-step approach to improve the district’s fiscal acumen:
1. Training department leaders on financial principles, including purchasing strategies and operating on a limited budget.
2. Continuing the reduction of four-person engine companies to three-person.
3. Limit excessive compensation.
4. Maintain services and use a more business-like approach to reduce the budget.
Peterson cites a 2010-11 Grand Jury Report critical district spending as an example of the board failing to “anticipate emerging trends, … understand the threats and exposures that might come down the line … (and) addressing those things quickly and decisively and correctly.”
The fix? “A couple more people on the board that have more of a business background, people who are looking two steps ahead and can … anticipate and react before you get to what’s happening and realize you’re too late.”
Engine company staffing
The district’s engine company staffing jumped out at Peterson as an obvious example of overstaffing. “Four people on an engine company is an absolute waste,” he said. “An engine company in a place like this should only have 3 people on it.”
He spoke from experience he said, having worked on both three- and four-person engine companies. “Unless you’re in some place like San Francisco … three is all you need.”
Outgoing Firefighters Union President Tom Anselmo subsequently confirmed that engine company staffing was reduced in 2011, as part of union concessions in the most recent Memorandum of Understanding. Three of four El Dorado Hills fire stations currently run a three-person engine company.
The fourth, Station 85, houses a ladder truck, which requires a fourth person. The union has also recently conceded an ambulance position in support of the Joint Powers Authority, which is battling its own budget problems.
At 89 percent of the operations budget, “Personnel is the district’s largest expense,” he said. “So you have to be responsible from that end.”
He conjectured that the current board had failed to curtail a hiring “ramp up,” which contributed to high overall payroll.
In fact, the district census has gotten smaller through attrition the last few years, with almost no hiring for the last several years.
Chief Roberts recently conceded that a firefighter who works lots of overtime can earn as much as $200,000, with benefits rolled in. Without additional hiring. overtime is necessary to maintain three-people on the engines any time a firefighter is sick or absent for any reason.
To reduce overtime, Peterson said that agencies will often reduce engine company staffing temporarily or pull remaining the staff into the core for the duration of the shift.
“But rather than run an understaffed engine or close a station every time someone calls in sick, you could staff an ambulance-type vehicle in lieu of an engine for that shift,” he said. “The majority of calls are medical, and on those rare situations when you actually have a fire, you’ve got another engine pretty darn close by.”
Peterson’s solution to the unfunded liability for retirement benefits starts with better financial practices, “such as not putting four men on an engine company, and you allocate those dollars to where they’re needed elsewhere, such as retirement funding.”
Peterson has conducted outreach and found that “no citizen I’ve met feels that a firefighter should make $160,000 to $200,000 per year,” a situation he blames on past board practices. “The firefighters are backing the incumbents because things have gone well for them.”
He stopped short of suggesting pay reductions, but said “firefighters that I’ve spoken with can’t believe how much money they’re making,” adding “They really don’t have to work very hard. It’s just a terrific job.”
If the firefighters offered to pay more than three percent of their income toward their CalPERs pension, or offered up any portion of costs of their medical plan, “it would go a long way in the community, from a public relations perspective,” he said.
Peterson conjectured that past boards and administrations let salaries escalate to retain talented employees, “but if you work for Gap or someplace else, they give raises based on performance … not across the board raises.”
A little turnover might not be such a bad thing, he conjectured, especially with “a pool of 30 trained volunteers waiting in the wings for any opening.”
“If you have no turnover, you’re probably paying a little bit more than you need to,” he continued. “Most organizations like to have between 10 and 25 percent turnover per year.”
Peterson said he attended the Sept. 20 meeting to get a read on the board and to confirm that if he gets elected “I would be better than what they have now,” he said, “and I would.”
He said he hopes his candidacy triggers spending reforms, even if his bid for office fails, and he’s pleased the PeterSENs are voicing some of the same concerns.