Gilroy loves a parade … and would like to embrace its firefighting ‘heroes’

Jumped out of the office Monday in the midst of putting together the newspaper in order to catch the Memorial Day parade with my family. Grandson Jackson intently loves a parade and Tyler Grace, who’s under a year old, trained her wide eyes on each passing performance.
It’s a cool Gilroy tradition started by former Mayor Mike Gilroy and friends like Councilman Bob Dillon. Thank you to all those who started this and have kept it going, especially the Gilroy Exchange Club.
It’s another touch of  small-town Americana that makes Gilroy great. From Cub Scouts to dance studios to Police Chief Denise Turner tossing candy to the crowds from the BearCat anti-whatever vehicle, it’s a ton of fun.
Who knew we had four tow truck companies in Gilroy, and how do those vaqueros train those horses to dance like that?
Peanut brittle hawkers roam the crowds while delighted children fervently wave American flags. There are military vets who come to watch, clad in Armed Services memorabilia and rightly feeling proud of their service to this great country. People say “thank you” to them and mean it.
Fun. A fitting tribute, and a really great addition to Gilroy’s fabric.
It’s all good, except when the cool Gilroy Fire Department trucks rolled down 10th Street, I couldn’t help but think about retired Battalion Chief Ed Bozzo and likely-soon-to-retire Battalion Chief Phil King – two guys who made more than $160,000 a year … suing the very city which afforded them such a wonderfully secure and comfortable lifestyle.
It makes my blood boil and makes me sad at the same time.

Money matters
Edward Bozzo and Phillip King earned $167,386 and  $180,232, respectively, in total compensation in calendar year 2011 according to city records. The figures take into account that each was docked $8,077 due to city furloughs in that year.
Bozzo and King are suing the city of Gilroy for unfair labor practices in federal court for “back pay compensation, liquidated damages equal to their unpaid compensation, plus post-judgment interest.” They want their attorney’s fees paid and are asking the judge to “Classify the Division Chief position as a non-exempt first responder classification.”
They want management pay and hourly rules. They want their cake and they want to wolf it down, too. How utterly unfair the City of Gilroy has been …
Yes, the trained firefighter attack dogs will come out, masked in cowardly anonymity on The Dispatch’s comment board. After all, there’s a fiefdom, er … a firefiefdom to protect.
Actually, I’d invite Phil or Ed to write a guest column explaining why they’re suing the city of Gilroy and the taxpayers. Isn’t $160,000 or so per year with luxurious retirement pay for the rest of your lives enough?
The heart of the matter
Here’s my issue. I think we want our firefighters and our police officers to be heroes, and when greed is pervasive within the ranks, when it’s a culture within a department like it’s become in Gilroy fire, there’s hardly a way to square up the hero part when it’s so obvious that it’s all about more and more money. It’s uncanny, a firefighter with management duties who makes $170,000 per year sues for overtime pay. It brews cynicism.
It’s galling actions like this, and the firefighter’s use of our city’s insane binding arbitration law to force the city to staff four firefighters to an engine in our small town, that have soured me on Gilroy’s firefighting corps.
It’s too bad, and it’s baffling that the firefighters don’t seem to understand what a good thing they’ve got going. The vast majority of their calls are for medical assistance. They respond, then the ambulance crew comes to assist and transport. On rare occasions, there’s a fire. That can be dangerous, of course, but it’s hardly like facing fires in a metro area like Chicago. Gilroy’s a pretty tame place to be a firefighter, still the city takes pride in having its own department with the latest gear and a well-trained crew.
Maybe it’s a case of the more firefighters have been given, the more they want. But you can only milk the system so long before the community wakes up and does something. The guy who’s been laid off or has taken a few furloughs on the chin surely notices that brand new Tahoe with the fire department sticker on the back windshield.
Police and firefighters
Since we’re deep into the subject, it’s a good time to address the distinction between Gilroy’s firefighters and its police. It’s night and day, really. The job of a police officer is far more difficult and dangerous. Gilroy police should be paid significantly more than their counterparts in the fire department.
Consider what our officers face on a day-to-day basis. Whether it’s investigating a rape case, responding to a domestic violence situation, being called to a  gang fight or simply making a car stop late at night of a suspicious vehicle that has dark tinted windows, danger lurks around every corner. And the emotional and mental toll is far greater.
Police officers aren’t running second businesses on their computers or cell phones at the police station, cooking dinner for the guys, tidying up the fire truck, going out on inspections or making grocery runs to Nob Hill. And they don’t have three officers to a police car, either.
How did we, as a community, get away from making a common sense evaluation as to which job clearly deserves more pay and why.
Frankly, if the city had the chutzpah to ruffle the firefighter’s union feathers, it would seriously explore expanding the ambulance service – those crews are paramedics, too – and cutting way back on firefighters.
An ambulance at every fire station and beefed up mutual aid agreements with the CDF station near Gilroy Gardens would be the keys to saving millions each year. But what city councilmember or mayor wants to take that on?
Unwilling to take on the issue
In Gilroy politics, it’s often “keep quiet, hope nobody notices and play nice” – even when it’s obviously a long-term detriment to the community to do so.
It would be marvelous – perhaps miraculous would be more accurate – if mayoral front runner Don Gage would address the issue head on. But don’t hold your breath. As long as there’s enough cash in the city coffers, it’s an off-limits arena for the Council.
Sometimes I think it’s too bad the outlets were ever built. As the sales tax dollars flow, the motivation for change and innovation is proportionately lessened.
Even the Gilroy Chamber has backed away from taking on the binding arbitration issue. In the last election, Mayor Al Pinheiro said that although he was adamantly against binding arbitration, which allows an outside attorney to essentially dictate contract terms with the city’s public safety unions should an impasse arise, he would not campaign against it.  
Everyone’s happy to make a deal with the devil while they’re in office.
But it won’t go on forever and the firefighters and politicians left standing when it ends will have to take comfort in Joni Mitchell’s classic lyrics, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”
Too bad. The emperor and the “heroes” have no clothes, and it’s sad that in our town politics has made them strange bedfellows.
Reach Editor Mark Derry at [email protected]

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