The Orinda Rotary and the Contra Costa Times named former MOFD Director John Wyro their 2016 Citizen of the Year. His volunteerism, as outlined in a March 2 Times article and a March 9 Lamorinda Weekly article is impressive, but the Task Force questions, is he really the most appropriate person in Orinda for this honor? One former city leader stated: “Selecting John shows that whomever is selecting the person is not looking at the bigger picture of result, not just commitment.  John was committed, just used bad judgment in fulfilling his commitment.” What “bad judgement” was being referred to?

The Lamorinda Weekly article stresses Wyro’s involvement in formation of MOFD which brought paramedic service to Orinda in 1997. This was commendable and possibly warranted an award; in 1998. However, MOFD was not formed just to provide paramedic service to Orinda. In the voter’s pamphlet for the 1997 measure forming MOFD there were four reasons given for the formation:

  1. Put a paramedic on every Orinda fire engine.
  2. Insure that fire protection dollars Orindans pay stay in Orinda.
  3. Insure the Orinda keeps 3 fire stations and current staffing levels.
  4. Make local fire commissioners responsible for our local needs.

Mr. Wyro was on the MOFD Board from its formation in 1997 through 2014, with two years off 2001 & 2002) when he moved from North Orinda to South Orinda, a change of divisions within the district. How did his actions respond to the four Orinda goals of the MOFD formation?

  1. We do have paramedic service on every fire engine. In fact, with 95% of all emergencies being medical in nature, two Orinda stations now have an ambulance the paramedics at those stations can use to respond to those medical emergencies and transport if necessary. And for a few years Orinda even had a dedicated ambulance crew until rising employee benefit costs made that expense impossible.
  2. $2.5 million of the fire protection dollars paid by Orinda tax payers in the current fiscal year is being used for service in Moraga. Orinda pays a premium for its emergency services. In addition to having one of the highest per capita property tax bases in the county, 23 percent of Orinda’s property tax goes to MOFD as opposed to the county average of 12 percent and higher than Moraga’s 19 percent. In addition, Orinda taxpayers pay a $600,000 parcel tax to MOFD while Moraga pays $475,000. Orinda’s total tax (2015/16) to MOFD is $14 million compared to Moraga’s $7.5 million. For this, nine firefighters are stationed in Orinda while eight are stationed in Moraga. Orinda’s firefighters are currently costing $1.5 million each, over 60% more than the $940,000 Moraga pays per firefighter. This inequity has existed since the District was formed, growing greater each year. Over Mr. Wyro’s term (through 2014), about $20 million of Orinda taxpayers dollars were exported to Moraga. Did Mr. Wyro or any other Orinda Director fight against this export of tax dollars? No. They not only refused to address this issue, they actively campaigned to claim that there was no such inequity in MOFD funding by making false statements regarding service to Orinda residents originating in Moraga and thus the necessity for Orinda taxpayers to fund part of Moraga’s service. Currently Orinda taxpayers are paying 25 percent of the cost of Moraga’s emergency services.
  3. Orinda has the same three stations and nine firefighters today as it had when the district was formed. However, over that time period Orinda’s tax to MOFD has increased from $5.4 million to $13.8 million. If operation costs, 85% of which are employee compensation, had been constrained to the effect of inflation, the cost of operating the three stations would have only increased to $8.8 million and Orinda would have an additional $5 million per year to fund services like upgrades to Orinda’s three dozen substandard fire hydrants; a vegetation reduction program for the acres of Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone in Orinda; or paramedic substations to address the fact that 30 percent of all emergencies in Orinda are not responded to within the District’s benchmark six minutes.
  4. Local fire commissioners (Board Directors) are responsible for our local needs. The District is divided into five divisions: two in Orinda, two in Moraga, and one split between Orinda and Moraga (with the majority of that split division in Orinda).   For most of Mr. Wyro’s tenure, the “split” division, Division 3, board position was held by an Orinda resident. And yet, even with a 60% majority of Orinda representation on the board we still exported $20 million of Orinda tax money to Moraga.

In addition, with regards to general management of MOFD over the years:

* Total employee compensation is currently, and has consistently accounted for, 85% of the District’s total revenue. In the 17 years that Mr. Wyro was involved that revenue added up to about $265 million; $225 going to the employees. However, when Mr. Wyro left at the end of 2014, the District had also accrued $90 million in debts. All of this debt was due to underfunded employee retirement benefits. Therefore, over Mr. Wyro’s term in office, the District payed out $315 million in employee compensation payments and future obligations while only taking in $265 million in revenue. And that is with a revenue stream growing at twice the rate of inflation.

* A small but notable portion of the $90 million in debt came from the infamous pension that Mr. Wyro and the rest of the board gave to Chief Pete Nowicki in 2008 through a series of retroactive contract revisions which increased his last year’s compensation $110,000 and his life-long pension $94,000 per year with cost of living increases.  This would have ultimately cost the District $4 million.   While the pension board recently overturned 2/3 of this increase, at the time it was given to the retiring chief, it made local and national news and Chief Nowicki became the poster boy of pension reform while those ultimately responsible for the excess were Mr. Wyro and the rest of the 2008 board. They could have said “no”.   A petition sponsored by the Task Force asking the last remaining member of the board, Moraga Director Fred Weil, to step down due to his involvement in what some called “a significant break in public trust and responsibility” (among other comments), was equally directed to Mr. Wyro and other members of that board no longer in public office.

Now Mr. Wyro’s service to the community extends well beyond his activities at MOFD and the Task Force has no knowledge of the impact of his other involvements. But seeing as emergency services are one of the most important aspects of local government and seeing as the $14 million spent annually by Orinda on MOFD is almost equal to the entirety of the rest of the Orinda city budget; from an Orinda viewpoint, Mr. Wyro’s time at MOFD must be considered a major factor in his selection as Orinda Citizen of the Year. And as one of our leaders stated, we should look at the results of Mr. Wyro’s actions at MOFD, not just the commitment.

In our opinion, the results are not worthy of the award. This is not a personal attack on Mr. Wyro, just the result of the compilation of facts, positive and negative, of Mr. Wyro’s service to Orinda.