Solana Beach mayor responds to firefighters

In the wake concerns that firefighter staffing may be reduced in Solana Beach, as well as two anonymous letters that were made public in recent weeks, Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner responded with the following letter on Aug. 24, which each member of the council signed in agreement:

“This past week, our city manager, David Ott, was accused of endangering public safety and of spiking his own retirement. The first was alleged by the Solana Beach Firefighters Association, and the second by an “anonymous retired Solana Beach employee.”

We’d like to tell you the full story as the “two” groups who are accusing our city manager have spun tales of half-truths and complete mistruths.

A little fiscal history first, because as you’ll see, it all comes down to the almighty dollar vs the good of our community now and in the future.

Last fiscal year the city of Solana Beach was faced with a large budget deficit. To

address it, over $1million was cut from our operating budget through austerity

measures. In addition, we were the first city in the region to institute full pension reform throughout our organization for an increased savings that year.

When fully instituted, this fiscally responsible action will save us hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in each year. Its important to note that our existing and new safety and non-safety employees will still receive every good pensions at their end of their careers that they have earned.

However, in order to achieve full pension reform, last year the City Council had to “impose” a new labor agreement on our firefighters. All other employee groups came to a voluntary agreement with the city. The overall result was that all city employees would pay their full employee share of their pension cost, whether immediately like our firefighters and lifeguards (lifeguards agreed to pension reform and it was not imposed on them) or over 3 years, to be completed by July 1, 2012, as was the case with all other employee groups. A 2% pay raise was given to the lifeguards and firefighters given that they were to pay their full share the first year while other employee groups phased it in. At the same time, the City Council immediately began paying their full pension cost and no raises were given.

Currently, we are looking at a new fiscal year budget, and are once again facing a deficit. This year it is approximately $700,000—$800,000. Almost half of that amount, $380,000, is attributed to overtime pay to firefighters. Overtime is paid to any replacement firefighter when another is out on vacation, sick leave, or workman’s compensation leave.

The City Council has had concerns with firefighter overtime pay for a couple years now. Faced with recurrent budget deficits due to the national economic downturn, it was an obvious place to examine in an effort to balance our budget. City Manager Ott was given direction by the Council on June 22, 2011, to provide to us ways to reduce the deficit through reducing firefighter overtime as well as other possible actions, and present them to us at our August 24, 2011 council meeting.

David Ott is eminently qualified to make these recommendations because not only is he our City Manager, but he achieved the rank of Fire Chief as well, and served as ours and for various other cities as their Fire Chief for over 9 years combined. He knows Fire operations, standards and procedures better than anyone, and his reputation in the region for his expertise is unsurpassed. David Ott would never recommend any action that would endanger the community of Solana Beach.

In following direction from the Council to look at firefighter overtime pay, he presented to us a few options. The least disruptive way to cut overtime without dramatically affecting service to our community, which would meet all OSHA standards, would not cause brownouts or slow response times would be to change from Constant Staffing to a reduced staffing scenario, where the first firefighter who called in sick, claimed a workers’ comp claim or took vacation would not be backfilled with a firefighter being paid overtime. All subsequent firefighters missing work that day would be backfilled with a firefighter being paid overtime. This entailed removing one firefighter from one of

the two trucks if and when one firefighter only took leave, and would cut approximately $150,000 from overtime costs.

We are staffed very well at our fire station. We have two apparatus: a fire engine and a ladder truck, and both are now staffed with three firefighters each. Each fire station in Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar, and many others in our region, has one truck only staffed with three firefighters. We are one of very few stations with two trucks with three firefighters each. We also have an emergency ambulance that is staffed with two non-city employee attendants.

Under the modified staffing plan that we explored, when one firefighter takes some form of paid leave, either the fire engine or the ladder truck would have three personnel and the other would have two. (Or for medical emergencies, those two could be placed on a smaller rescue type vehicle at less cost and faster response time.)

The Council and City Manager also explored other ideas for cutting overtime, including the idea of a “floating” firefighter to replace the absent one. Once you add in the cost of Workmen’s Comp, however we discovered, that is not a money saving idea.

Now here’s the interesting part as it is relevant to the Solana Beach Firefighters Associations’ claims against David Ott. David Ott did not recommend the reduced staffing option to us! Instead he came up with cuts in other areas to close our budget gap (staffing reorganizations, reducing scope of work on General Plan for FY11/12, and other cuts.) And here’s the really interesting part: the firefighters knew this before they sent out their “hit piece” on David Ott claiming he was endangering public safety by recommending to reduce fire department staffing. They had this agreement on August 10, ratified it August 16 … the day before they sent their email out to community members and the Press. And, may we emphasize, our agreement had nothing in it

about a reduction in staffing.

Why do you suppose they did this? Could it have anything to do with Solana Beach being the first city in the region to have achieved full pension reform which cut all pensions, including the firefighters’? Could they be worried that they might be faced with staffing cuts or pay cuts in future years if we still face a budget deficit? Could they think that if they discredited and removed David Ott, another city manager might be more sympathetic to them and suggest pay raises and possibly a reversal on pension reform? That another city manager might not be as responsible to the overall community and our current and future fiscal health and would increase pay or pensions to these individual firefighters despite budget problems? Could it be that they’re not as worried about our safety as their pensions and pay?

The second claim against City Manager Ott was delivered to the press by an

anonymous Solana Beach retired employee. In it, this person who didn’t have the courage to attach their name to their tall tale, wove together a conspiracy theory that named a group of “good ol’ boys” intent on spiking David Ott’s retirement pay 8 years in the future. It’s preposterous. We won’t address each of their claims (although we are prepared to….we just don’t think they warrant the time), but we will lay out the facts.

• David Ott has worked most his life in public service. So have our firefighters.

David, however, recommended financial strategies contrary to his own financial

good by being an early and ardent leader in the area of pension reform and

helped us to institute it in Solana Beach, for the good of our city. This negatively affected his own pension. The firefighters are not happy about the impact on their pension, despite the fact that our city’s budget could not sustain paying their share of their pension costs now or in the future.

• David Ott retired and is taking a pension. Yes. That’s true. And he’s entitled to it just like anyone who has paid into and reached the age of retirement. He retired and was hired back by us, the city council, as interim City Manger to work at an hourly rate of $78/hour, much lower than the Interim City Managers of Encinitas and Del Mar. We are not paying him any benefits, and with this arrangement he is saving the city $84,000 per year. We have retained him because as it turns out we have some very complicated and controversial issues on the table, not the least of which is our budget. Add to that our Local Coastal Program, the proposed Affordable Housing project on S. Sierra Avenue, the impending development at the Train Station, our General Plan update, and more. David has the institutional knowledge and the relationships to carry them through. A new city manager would be done in by them!

• David Ott served multiple roles for our city over many years. He performed as

Fire Chief, Director of Public Safety, and Assistant Manager. When the previous

City Manager left, your Council promoted him to be our City Manager and he

retained the positions of Fire Chief and Director of Public Safety. He was paid

one salary, not three salaries, for this work and performed them all well. In

addition, while he served as the Fire Chief for the City of Del Mar in addition to all his jobs in Solana Beach (2003—2009), even though the City of Solana Beach

was paid by Del Mar for David’s services, David did not receive an increase in his salary for this extra work. Over his tenure with the City of Solana Beach and

because of his work efforts, he has saved our city approximately $1.2 million,

with savings of over $650,000 from 2006—2009 alone. In October 2009, he

stopped earning Fire Safety pension credits the minute his emergency and non-emergency responsibilities were replaced with our new fire department shared management services arrangement. David originally initiated this concept in

2006, which has cut costs for our city by $100,000 annually while increasing fire management safety service. Because of his commitment to doing the right thing for our city, we have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars while receiving top professional services from him.

To assert that David Ott has done anything but the right thing for Solana Beach ever is slander. The claims by these employees tell more about them than about Mr. Ott. They are thinking of their pensions and pay only, not the community, not public safety. As a former Firefighter and Fire Chief, that Mr. Ott did NOT recommend cushy pensions going forward shows Mr. Ott was thinking about us, about the good of our community … that he was doing the right thing. And he would never endanger this community.

Mr. Ott took on additional jobs and responsibilities and did not ask to be additionally compensated. He recommended against his own financial interests when he pushed for pension reform in his own city. He was in the forefront of this movement in his role as President of the City Manager’s Association and followed through with it in his own city.

May I remind our firefighters, who we do appreciate very much, that ultimately, it is the council that makes these decisions, not the city manager. And may I remind them that we’ve taken an oath to protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Solana Beach, and neither the city council or the city manager would ever do anything that would harm public safety.


Lesa Heebner

Mayor, City of Solana Beach

SANDAG Board Member

Joe Kellejian

Deputy Mayor, City of Solana Beach City

Dave Roberts

Council Member, City of Solana Beach

Mike Nichols

Council Member, City of Solana Beach

Thomas A Campbell

Council Member, City of Solana Beach