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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Davis Firefighters to Unleash Another Round of Spending

Yesterday, I found more literature from the Davis Firefighters on my door step. In addition to an apparent reissuing of the brochure from earlier this month, it appears they will be using a fire helmet shaped door hanger to spread the word around Davis in the last week before the election.

Last week, they filed paperwork with the city clerk's office to show that they had already spent $6700 on their independent expenditure campaign. This was on top of the over $12,000 they had already spent on direct contributions to their three endorsed candidates. This week, it appears they have thrown in at least another $7000, which would push their expenditure campaign over $25,000 in an effort to secure their highly lucrative contracts.

Davis resident Tim Townsend summed up the city's fiscal situation in a letter to the editor of the Davis Enterprise last week:
"The Bee wrote about it, Rifkin riffed on it, the Davis Vanguard blogged about it and The Enterprise finally covered it. Are Davis voters going to get it? The city of Vallejo, 45 minutes west on Interstate 80, is likely going bankrupt — the largest California city to ever have done so. But why?

One answer, per The Enterprise: "Many officials and residents attribute Vallejo's fiscal troubles to overly generous pay and benefits to the city's police and firefighters."
Davis firefighters and their union have contributed nearly $30,000 to the campaigns of Don Saylor, Steve Souza and Sydney Vergis for City Council. Saylor and Souza have already voted to sweeten our firefighters' retirements to way beyond fair! Only our mayor, Sue Greenwald, had the courage to say "No!" We need candidates who will hold the line against fiscally irresponsible spending, or we may end up in Vallejo's shoes."

The city of Vallejo has made worldwide headlines with their fiscal plight that has led them to file for bankruptcy. Even in the face of bankruptcy, they could not get the public safety unions to back off salary demands.

As the San Jose Mercury news reported on Saturday:
"The Vallejo City Council unanimously agreed to begin bankruptcy filings after months of failed negotiations between city and public employee union negotiators. Several meetings between city and union negotiators after the May 6 vote didn't break the stalemate."
Davis Enterprise Columnist Rich Rifkin deserves much credit in uncovering the current state of contracts for firefighters. 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.

As Dave Hart, President of one of the California State Employees Association posted on the Vanguard in response to the May 4, 2008 article on the fire fighters:
"3% at 50 is in my opinion an unsustainable pension benefit. It threatens to undermine the pension system for everyone else in public service."
The fire fighters are now fighting to keep what they have, even as it does damage to the city's fiscal situation.

Now no one doubts the importance of the job the fire fighters do. In fact, no one believes that they should not be paid well for doing it. What many question is the current system which pays heavy overtime to Captains, with pay and benefits pushing their compensation to over $175,000 to $200,000 per year, and the lucrative retirement which pays them as much as 90% of their ending salary which is often artificially pushed up to that of a Battalion Chief.

Davis' fiscal situation is much stronger than that of Vallejo, but Vallejo is still a lesson to be learned. The council majority right now plans to pay for its unmet needs including pensions and health benefits through tax increases. But the system is in danger of becoming more and more top heavy, with more of the resources going to pay for people who often retire at the age of 50. And as we saw in Vallejo, these public safety unions are not willing to step forward even in the face of city bankruptcy. No wonder they are the single largest contributor to the Davis City Council races.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting