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Newark Manager criticizes police/fire retirement benefit, Fremont manager silent

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.

Matt Artz

  • Doug

    Being a firefighter is definitely a sweet deal. I don’t know if the statistics are readily available, but a large percentage of usually retire on medical, which sweetens the pot. One FFD battalion chief just retired and has taken a job with the Dept. of Homeland Security. Now that is really sweet.

  • bbox231

    We provide these kinds of benefit and salary packages to some folks because we’re told “..that’s the market.”

    But doesnt it feel like “the market” is way disconnected when teachers are making 1/3rd the same income as a PD or FD ? – maybe we’d need fewer PD if we had more qualified and highly compensated teachers in the classroom.

    Another thought – we ship our sons and daughters off to serve in our armed forces and ask them to work in harms’ way and yet they receive a fraction in compensation and benefit. Something feels a little out of whack.

    Private industry has all but eliminated the historical pensions and retirement benefits afforded in the private sector. . . . salaries of highly skilled and dedicated individuals everywhere, are declining – something feels very disconnected.

  • Doug

    Bbox231, I agree with all you said.

    Our governor wants to take a hatchet to the funding of our education system. The effects will be seen years down the road as crime begins to increase and we scream for more law enforcement.

    Meanwhile, our returning military vets have been dropping into the abyss called the VA, although it appears media attention may be turning that around.

    CEOs have been rewarded with outrageous salaries and bonuses by their stockholders for eliminating fixed-benefit pensions and improving the bottom line.

  • Jen

    Add to the fact that police and firefighters often “moonlight” in other professions, real estate, etc. because their schedules allow them to do so.

    So they actually make even MORE in some cases than the figures cited.

    I guess you can do that when you only have to work 10 or 12 days a month.

  • Jim

    In the case of firefighters the 10-12 days a month consist of 24 hour shifts. That is a minimum of 240 hours a month compared to a “regular” job where a typical month consist of 160 hours. Now pile on top of that the cancer risk that is 2-3 times the average person’s,the risk of hepatitis,HIV and you start to get a little better perspective.I don’t think that firefighters are heroes but they do things most would not want to do.