Firefighters who spearheaded a campaign to terminate Rural/Metro's role in Scottsdale made fatal errors when they attempted to paint the company as an evil corporate entity and engaged in debates about cost, political observers said.
A sluggish economy that pushed the city into its worst budget crisis in more than three decades, and the firefighter group's inability to forge relationships in the city, also contributed to voter apathy for the firefighters' cause, observers said.
Scottsdale voters overwhelmingly defeated a pair of propositions on May 20 that would have formed a municipal fire department in favor of Rural/Metro Corp.
The union-backed group Committee to Protect Scottsdale and Our Firefighters insisted throughout the campaign that forming a city-run fire department would be less expensive than keeping Rural/Metro — the city's fire-service provider since 1951.
Their numbers flew in the face of city projections that showed it would cost $6.4 million in one-time transition costs, and about $2 million more annually than Rural/Metro's contract with the city.
"It took some of the shine off firefighters when they were engaged in some fuzzy math, rather than just standing up and saying, 'You know what, it is going to cost you a little more, but it's worth it, we're worth it and your safety is worth it,'" said political consultant Jason Rose, who has run both local and statewide campaigns.
Public safety measures across the country have a strong record of passing by overwhelming margins, he said. In this case, though, focusing on costs may have been a death knell for firefighters, Rose said.
The firefighter group also had few "third-party" supporters, or local backers of the campaign.
The lion's share of $560,000 in campaign contributions came from unions and their members from outside Scottsdale, despite supporters' assertions that the initiatives were locally driven.
The firefighters even failed to secure support from the city's largest law-enforcement organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, which issued a stinging "vote no" endorsement late in the campaign.
In Rural/Metro's case, a separate group of city notables threw their weight behind the company. Supporters of the Know Enough to Vote No Committee read like a "who's who" list of prominent city names.
Indeed, the Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Firefighters acknowledged the lack of support in a story posted Friday on its Web site.
"It was a classic case of David versus Goliath," the story read, saying it was the firefighters against the "entire Scottsdale establishment."
But in financial terms, Rural/Metro was "David," and the firefighter group was "Goliath." The firefighters outspent Rural/Metro and their supporters by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
"Frankly, I'm surprised the firefighters were not successful," said marketing consultant Bill Heckman, who has run local campaigns, and is chairman of public policy for the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce. "They ran a great campaign."
Heckman, however, said the firefighters' undoing could have been when they tried to paint Rural/Metro as a company that sacrifices safety for the sake of profits. Casting those fears may have turned voters against the firefighters and their unions.
"It was loaded with a lot of misinformation, and more than just the (financial) numbers," he said. "Rural/Metro has one of the safest records of any Valley city, and it was being touted as badly run."
It was Rural/Metro's fear mongering that ultimately won votes, said Steve Springborn, local union president and company firefighter who helped spearhead efforts for a municipal fire department.
He said company executives used inflated cost estimates to alarm voters into casting ballots their way.
"It's obvious the opposition's scare tactics with the big numbers worked," he said. "They convinced people that this was going to be a catastrophic event and they lied to the citizens and they got enough of them to vote for them."
Heckman said he suspects the underlying issue had more to do with gripes about not having a pension plan or death benefits that are comparable to Valley municipal fire departments.
While firefighters say the main reason for the effort was safety, they did acknowledge the campaign raised public awareness about their job benefits.
Their labor contract with Rural/Metro expires June 30, and both sides will be forced to set aside differences.
"Obviously we will go through negotiations and resolve a lot of those (issues)," Springborn said. "But unfortunately, it's still going to be a situation where they're not eligible for the same type of benefits that the rest of the Valley firefighters get."
Thumbs up for the following in the May 20 Scottsdale fire-service election:
-- Kurt Krumperman, Rural/Metro president of fire and emergency services — The public face of Rural/Metro, Krumperman's stoic delivery never wavered from the company message: There is not a public-safety crisis in Scottsdale.
-- Mary Manross, Scottsdale mayor — Quiet until late in the campaign, Manross delivered a very public endorsement of Rural/Metro, urging a "no" vote and saying the propositions would send the city budget into a tailspin. "It is time for straight talk," the mayor said.
-- Steve Randall, Rural/Metro fire chief — He's in charge of the entire Maricopa County fire operation, but Randall's future in Scottsdale — where the company keeps its headquarters — was on shaky ground. It's no secret City Manager Jan Dolan was prepared to launch a national search for a new city fire chief.
-- Jim Bruner, Co-chairman of the Know Enough to Vote No Committee — Scored a political victory after a long dry spell. A former Scottsdale City Councilman, Bruner is perhaps best known — and some say unfairly ostracized — for having been the Maricopa County supervisor whose 1994 vote created a quarter-cent sales tax that helped build Bank One Ballpark. Bruner was later denied what political observers noted would have been a sure seat in Congress due to the backlash.
Thumbs down for the following in the May 20 Scottsdale fire-service election:
-- Steve Springborn, Local union president — A dynamic public speaker, this Rural/Metro firefighter spearheaded the effort to oust his company's role in Scottsdale. How does he fit in with the company now? It remains to be seen how future labor talks will proceed with Springborn as a key player at the negotiating table.
-- Rich Woerth, Tempe firefighter — A Scottsdale resident, Woerth was a driving force behind early efforts to create a municipal fire department, helping to organize a massive signature-gathering drive to put the issue on the ballot. His role diminished as the election grew closer.
-- Bob Littlefield, Scottsdale city councilman — The most outspoken of public officials in the election, Littlefield went out on a limb to back firefighter efforts. He pushed the issue from the dais and published a detailed budget showing a city-run department would have a minimal effect on residents' services and programs.
-- International Association of Firefighters — Members of the Washington, D.C.-based union provided financial firepower for the campaign aimed at unseating Rural/Metro from Scottsdale.