As the city of Vallejo, Calif., races toward bankruptcy, firefighter unions are asking “Why us?” But they should be asking "What next?"
An article in the San Jose Mercury News reports that Vallejo, a medium-sized city at the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, faces a $6 million budget shortfall this year with a deficit of $14 million projected next year. And Vallejo may be nothing more than the tip of a very large iceberg.
The paper cites public employee pay and benefit spirals spawned by two problems — comparisons among communities rather than comparable private sector jobs and binding arbitration decisions — for unsustainable public safety payrolls. Rising overtime claims, fueled by cozy relationships with unions and among employees to help colleagues boost their pensions, also erode efforts to improve the certainty and security of public safety budgets.
Like most cities, public safety consumes the lion‘s share of municipal revenues in Vallejo. Fire and police salaries and benefits consume the vast majority of that large slice of the municipal budget pie. Unlike many of their peers in other cities, Vallejo firefighters have enjoyed significant wage increases at a time when revenues have remained more or less stagnant. A new wage agreement in 2007 granted firefighters a 9% pay hike while maintaining employer contributions to the generous CALPERS retirement system.
An independent citizens' group, citing information obtained from city payroll records, demonstrated that the median income of a uniformed Vallejo Fire Department official in 2006 topped $157,000, while the median income of Vallejo residents sat around $54,000. The top-paid fire department employee's W-2 form reported a whopping $359,000 in gross income during his last year of employment, a figure that would appear to guarantee a pension wage equal to or greater than the average enjoyed by his still-working former colleagues.
Community activists have accused the local firefighter union leaders and high-ranking fire department officials with nothing short of corruption in the handling of firefighter pay issues. Claims and counterclaims have consumed local media coverage and public discourse for much of the past year without resolving the looming fiscal crisis.
An outside observer might reasonably wonder whether either side in the Vallejo budget dispute recognizes its complicity in this disaster. Firefighters, like other public servants, deserve a decent wage for their work. Most public servants receive generous benefits that make up, in part, for pay that usually lags behind comparably qualified private-sector occupations. They also receive employment conditions that protect their tenure to a far greater degree than most other workers and generally have enjoyed greater consideration of tenure than performance in pay and promotional decisions.
Local elected officials agreed to the generous employment and remuneration conditions for Vallejo firefighters despite ample evidence that their conditions not only were fair, but also were competitive. By committing to these conditions despite ample demands for fiscal restraint — remember Proposition 13? — they bound their fellow citizens to a commitment they clearly cannot keep.
When firefighters employed under collective agreements are earning more than the exempt executives overseeing their departments and many private-sector senior executives and professionals, it seems reasonable to ask what‘s wrong with this picture. When firefighters‘ average salaries and benefits are nearly three times the local median wage, citizens could reasonably question the morality of the situation.
“We deserve whatever we can get,” is not a reasonable answer to reasonable remuneration for firefighters. The dangers of the job do not justify additional pay; they demand a well-trained and engaged work force that practices what it preaches.
The days when fire department vacancies attracted hundreds of applicants for a handful of jobs may be gone, but so too is any illusion that candidates for fire department jobs require special qualities beyond a simple and deeply felt desire to serve. As such, competition for candidates should be seen as a need to invest more money in firefighter training and fire prevention instead of higher pay and better benefits.
Leading Democrat presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has outlined a plan for a program to promote public service and civic engagement in exchange for college tuition benefits. Notwithstanding concerns about the prospective costs of the Democrat‘s proposal, Republican frontrunner Sen. John McCain unsurprisingly seems to support calls for national service. The success of these efforts will depend on local opportunities to engage young people in activities that serve the needs of their fellow citizens. And few needs rank higher among citizens than safety and security.
Before the unions tell us why engaging young people as volunteer firefighters or EMTs will undermine the safety of the community or firefighters mdash; and they will say that — we better ask ourselves what we are prepared to do to see something like this work. Firefighters have an overriding obligation to serve their communities not just themselves. If they can't or won't reconcile their interests with those of their communities, we must not only support efforts to encourage a national service program that will supply communities with the willing and able volunteers needed to ensure their protection, but also do everything we can to make sure it succeeds.