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California

Tom Gray
Yesterday’s Heroes?
Big pensions put California police and firemen on the wrong side of public opinion.
30 June 2011

Motherhood, the flag, and firemen—they pretty much go together in the pantheon of political symbolism. Except maybe in Alameda. In that city of 74,000, just across the bay from San Francisco, firefighters have been getting anything but love from the public. Some 200 residents showed up at the Alameda City Council’s June 21 meeting to watch the council approve a new contract with the firefighters’ union. Most of the crowd disapproved of the deal, preferring that the firefighters take pay cuts. At the very least, they wanted the council to delay final approval until the public could have a closer look at the contract’s terms.

The Alamedans found an ally in city auditor Kevin Kearney, who offered a blunt assessment of the contract and its impact on the city’s treasury: “Seventy percent of our budget is tied up with guys who make too much damned money.” Kearney shouldn’t bother trying to pay his respects at a fireman’s funeral; Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender and an outspoken pension-reform advocate, tried to do that a few weeks ago at a service for two fallen firefighters at the city’s St. Mary’s Cathedral. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross reported, Adachi was standing with other local leaders outside the cathedral when, according to witnesses, “a large firefighter in uniform came up to Adachi and asked him to leave, at the request of a member of the fallen firefighter’s family.” Adachi held his ground until the same officer returned a couple of minutes later and told him, “We don’t want to have any problems.” Adachi took the hint and left.

A liberal Democrat in a labor-friendly town, Adachi has become an unlikely hero in the fledgling pension-reform movement. He took on the public-sector unions last November with a ballot initiative that would have required city employees to contribute more to their retirement and health-care plans and raised the retirement age for public-safety workers. Prop. B lost; Adachi has already launched a “Son of B” campaign.

Are the controversies in Alameda and San Francisco isolated incidents? Alameda is certainly something of a special case. The fire department drew criticism last month after its firefighters stood idle on shore while a man drowned—in an apparent suicide—off an Alameda beach. The fire chief resigned last year after he was found to be helping himself to free city gas for his personal cars.

Then again, we might be seeing the first skirmishes in a new kind of class war. Signs of a growing restiveness with the demands of public-safety unions and the costs of fire and police pensions are appearing across the state. In San Jose, the Santa Clara County grand jury recently criticized a common type of featherbedding—sending fire trucks and crews to respond to medical emergency calls when an ambulance would suffice—and suggested that firefighters’ unions were more interested in preserving jobs than in efficiency. Last November, Bakersfield voters cut pension benefits for new police and fire employees. In the San Diego suburb of Carlsbad, residents passed a measure requiring a public vote on any future pension hikes for public-safety workers, thus protecting a two-tier system, with lower benefits for new hires, that the city recently established. And just last week, Costa Mesa passed a tough budget requiring cops to work five days a week rather than four. The change so infuriated police chief Steve Staveley—who had been earning $298,000 a year in total compensation—that he quit.

Expect to see plenty more pushback against public-safety unions as California’s economic slog drags on and local governments struggle to pay the bills. It’s not that the public doesn’t value the work of firefighters and police officers. Most people simply didn’t realize until recently how generous the pay and pensions are for public-safety work. Police and fire compensation stands far above the average for other public-sector jobs. In San Francisco, for instance, the average pension is $108,552 for a firefighter and $95,016 for a cop. The average for all other municipal employees is $41,136. In fact, public-safety pensions skew the average city pension to the point that it’s higher than what the average working San Franciscan earns each year: $46,272 versus $44,373 per capita.

Police and fire unions may resent the public’s sudden turn against them, but they have only themselves to blame. They long ago mastered the art of kingmaking in local politics, marginalizing critics while rewarding friends with campaign cash and priceless endorsements. Today, the average working Californian—to say nothing of people struggling to find work—can assume that the police officer citing him for speeding is living in a different world, financially secure and too comfortable by half. That situation is bound to breed more strife until pay and pensions are brought back to levels that the public sees as fair and affordable.

Tom Gray is a former editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Daily News and a former senior editor at Investor’s Business Daily.

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