Tri-City area City Managers were asked last night about a pension benefit that allows police officers and firefighters to retire after 30 years of service and collect at least 90 percent of their final salary every year for the rest of their lives.
Newark’s John Becker didn’t hesitate to answer:
“That’s a huge problem,” he said of the pension benefit which is more generous than those allotted to any other type of public employee. But, he added, there isn’t much his city or others can do about it.
“Public safety unions exert a lot of influence,” he said. “They’re a very influential group at all levels of government.”
Union City Manager Larry Cheeves chimed in, “What John said is absolutely true.”
Fremont City Manager Fred Diaz didn’t say anything.
The forum, on the cities’ budget issues, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and moderated by former Fremont Councilmember Dominic Dutra.
I give Dutra a lot credit for bringing the high cost of public safety employees into the discussion.
It’s rarely mentioned during debates about property tax hikes or burglar alarm response, but it’s hard to have the public safety staffing people want when you’re paying police and fire well more than double the national average.
With The Argus going through yet another round of layoffs, I’ve recently started looking at the The Career Handbook, 2008-09 Edition. According to the handbook, the median salary for police officers in 2006 was $47,460. For firefighters, it was $41,190.
For sworn officers who made at least $70,000 in base salary in 2006, the average salary (including overtime) was $124,226. For firefighters, not including the chief and division chief, it was $136,333.
The generous retirement benefit, called 3 percent at 50, allows police officers and firefighters to retire at 50 with an annual pension benefit equal three times their years of service. So if they worked 25 years, they can retire at 50 and collect 75 percent of their final salary for the rest of their lives. If they worked 30 years, then it’s 90 percent.
Gray Davis first gave this benefit to the powerful Prison Guards union, and, as I was told several years ago, CalPERS advised other districts before the dot.com bust that they could afford to give it to their police and fire unions too. Now that most Bay Area cities offer the benefit, it’s hard to recruit or retain officers if you don’t have it.
Oh well, there I go again. That was just a small part of the forum, but for me it was the most interesting part. A lot of the rest of it was Dutra getting the city managers to explain how budgets work, the evils of Prop. 13, the impact of the state’s deficit, etc.
The managers were all convinced their cities were going through tough times, but no one gave specifics on what might be cut or how much revenue could be lost.
For a different perspective on the forum, stay tuned to Newbor.com, operated by former Argus reporter Barry Shatzman, who ate three free cookies at last night’s event. I ate four.