The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Commentary: Fire Fighters Spend $25,000 to $30,000 in City Council Campaign to support Saylor, Souza, and Vergis

Saturday afternoon I opened my door and leaning against my door was a manila envelope with my wife's name on it (Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald for those who do not know). It seemed a bit odd, so I opened it up. It was not sealed, but rather closed with a clasp. In it, was an 8 1/2 by 11, full color, glossy, on heavy cardstock flier done by the Davis Firefighters supporting their chosen three candidates for the Davis City Council.

The whole thing seemed a bit odd to me, but I really did not know whether it was a friend or foe who left it on our doorstep. That is until I spoke later with both Rob Roy and Sue Greenwald and they both had the same experience. At this point there was little doubt in my mind that the fire department had actually left the flier on my doorstep.

The Davis firefighters have already directly contributed nearly $12,000 to their three endorsed candidates. Davis Enterprise columnist Rich Rifkin deserves great credit in doing a lot of the legwork on this issue. While Vanguard regulars know that Mr. Rifkin is often in disagreement with the Vanguard on a good many issues, we also share a bit of common ground on the issue of the budget. It was his piece from April 16, 2008 that laid out exactly how much the firefighters were spending on this race.
"In a recent front-page story in The Enterprise, Claire St. John reported that "38 people identifying themselves as city of Davis firefighters" gave $100 each (the maximum allowed by law) to City Council candidate Sydney Vergis. Of the $8,450, that Vergis has raised for her campaign, 45 percent of that came from this one group.

What that story didn't mention is that the Davis firefighters have also contributed heavily to the re-election campaigns of incumbents Don Saylor and Stephen Souza. In Souza's case, 39 gave him the maximum. Saylor received $4,200 from members of Local 3494."
He goes on to add:
" In addition to the $11,900 firefighters have directly contributed to candidates, the political action committee of Local 3494 has raised $11,536 from its membership. Presumably, that money will be spent to help elect the candidates favorable to the union. "
It is pretty clear that Mr. Rifkin was rather prophetic on this point, because this mailer has to be a $10,000 to $15,000 mailer... AT LEAST. So basically the firefighters are giving $25,000 to $30,000 to their three endorsed candidates.

We can argue over influence peddling, but there is a very clear agenda here by the firefighters. They already know that councilmembers like Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek have opposed efforts to add things like a fourth fire station and that they have been a strong advocate of holding the line on salaries and pensions for management level employees.

Rich Rifkin's research and article from December of 2007 is very informative and instructive.
"Last year (2006-07), the city spent $124,183 more than it took in. This year the deficit is $146,376. And next year the shortfall is projected to be $349,464. Yet during that time, the city's revenues will have increased by more than $2.1 million.

No segment of Davis' labor force is gorging at the trough more voraciously than the Fire Department. Every one of our full-time firefighters in 2006-07 cost us more than $100,000 in salary, benefits and other expenses. The average was $147,488.

For every $100 in regular salary we gave them, we paid out an additional $29 in overtime. And that was not, according to what Davis City Manager Bill Emlen told me in a phone conversation, unusual. "
He goes on to warn the public that these practices are unsustainable and the worst aspect of it from the standpoint of fiscal responsibility is the retirement age of 50 and 3% at 50 pension.
"When the new contract was signed the following year, Local 3494 agreed to a 36 percent increase in salaries over four years. Their $100 checks paid off. They also got a fat retirement deal, called 3 percent at 50.

What that means is that a firefighter can retire at age 50 and for every year he worked he gets 3 percent of his final salary to start his retirement. A firefighter who puts in 30 years gets 90 percent of his final salary. And because many firefighters finish as battalion chiefs and captains, those final salaries are especially lucrative."
As Rich Rifkin points out, this year's election is particularly important to the fire department because their current contract expires in 2009.

Moreover in his December article, Rich Rifkin gave us the example of firefighter H.
"Added together, the total cash out for this one firefighter was $213,741. Yet that figure is not all-inclusive. The city estimates that H's unfunded liability for his retiree medical benefits will cost the city an additional $7,417. So to pay this one person, the final bill in 2006-07 was $221,158. "
Due to the lucrative overtime, many of these firefighters actually receive more combined money and benefits than the City Manager, Police Chief, and Fire Chief.

I also read some of the angry responses to Rich Rifkin's two columns criticizing the salary structure and campaign tactics of the firefighters. I think there are three key points that need to be raised:

First, I have the utmost appreciation for what the firefighters do. I have been rescued by fire fighters from various situations twice in my life. In addition, I went on a ride along with the fire department in Davis last summer it was one of those hundred degree days and in addition to sweating out several pounds in the heavy suit, I was knocked around pretty good by the fire hoses. And folks if you have not met me I am a pretty big guy.

Second, there is an argument that comes from some of the councilmembers supporting these kind of wage structures that asks how much a life is worth as though the expenditure of $250,000 were justified by the important job they perform. The problem with that argument is that it assumes an infinite city budget. However, the budget is not infinite and at some point it may become zero-sum as resources become tighter and the public becomes less willing to continue to pay increasing taxes. How much of a jeopardy is it, if we cannot afford proper maintenance of our streets, proper upkeep of our infrastructure, if we put the public at risk because money that should go to other things instead goes to the firefighters personal salaries and benefits (firefighters making over $150,000 in these wages to begin with)--how many lives would be in jeopardy then? Why is fiscal responsibility suddenly going to put lives in danger?

And the third point follows from the second and that is the serious damage that we are doing to the fiscal stability of this city caused not only by the immediate costs of pay and benefits, but also the structural problems of having lucrative retirement plans like 3% at 50 extended to other public employees. I do not wish to balance our budget on the backs of those making 60,000 but we have to hold the line at those making 150,000 to 250,000, do we not?

Lest we believe that this is a fabricated danger, we have the example of the city of Vallejo which is bankrupt.
"The fiscal crisis, which comes more than three years after the state took over the city's debt-ridden public schools, is a result of snowballing police and firefighter salaries and overtime expenses coupled with plummeting tax revenue from the weak housing market, officials say. (San Francisco Chronicle February 21, 2008)."
Meanwhile in Sacramento last week, the Bee reported:
"Despite facing major deficits and worker layoffs, the city of Sacramento is on the verge of approving nearly $15 million in additional pay for firefighters and paramedics over the next two years. (April 28, 2008)."
It would appear that Davis is hardly alone in facing both the problem and the pressure of firefighters for ever-increasing shares of the city budget, even amid severe budget strains. Davis over the course of the next few years will be facing a variety of new taxes, despite claims of balanced-budget, in order to meet to ever-increasing unmet needs of spiraling salaries and pensions to those city employees who are making among the most in salaries to begin with.

It is thus unsurprising that the firefighters have put so much time and effort into the latest city council campaign. It is up to the voters of Davis to determine what to do with this information and this influence peddling.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting