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Letter: Escalating cost of firefighters unsustainable

Original post made on Aug 4, 2009

Cities and counties can no longer afford the salaries and pensions of our firefighters.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, August 5, 2009, 12:00 AM

Comments (11)

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 4, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Jerome provides an interesting data point for comparing salaries for difficult, demanding and potentially risky public services jobs.

Here are a few more such comparisons:

1 - The pilot of Air Force One is a USAF Colonel usually with 20-25 years of service.

His base pay is $11,007.30/month or $132,087 /year

He also receives about $500/month or $6000/year of flight pay

He supervises a crew of approximately 26 (not including the Secret Service agents accompanying the President).

He can retire with 2.5% of the average of his last three years base pay for each year of service but capped at 75%.

2 - a US Forest Service Smokejumper ( a firefighter who parachutes from airplanes to put out forest fires) are in GS-5 to GS-9 pay grades and start as $27,026/year and top out at $53,234/year at the top step level for non- supervisory ( includes crew chiefs but not management level) smokejumpers

MEDICAL AND PHYSICAL REQUIREMENTS: Smokejumper duties present unusual hazards and require that personnel be in excellent physical condition and possess a high degree of emotional stability and mental alertness. The health of individuals must be such that they have the capacity to meet demands for performance in the position and for human reliability. Before entrance on duty, and periodically during employment, smokejumpers must undergo a medical exam, physical conditioning, and an adeptness test. Failure to meet any of the required standards will be considered disqualifying for employment or a basis of termination. The adeptness test will be given in one time period and consists of performing 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, 7 chin-ups, and a 1.5-mile run which must be completed in 11 minutes or less. In addition to the work capacity test at the arduous level (as referenced under Other Significant Facts), a smokejumper pack-out test is required and consists of completing a 3-mile hike over level ground carrying a 110 pound pack in 90 minutes or less. The health of individuals must be such that they have the capacity to meet the demands for human reliability and performance in the position.

3 -Maj. Jennifer Grieves is the first female helicopter aircraft commander in the history of Marine One, the HMX-1 helicopter the president of the United States flies on. She makes about $84,000 and she can retire with 2.5% of the average of her last three years base pay for each year of service but capped at 75%.

4 - NASA's civilian astronauts are in the GS-11 through GS-14 pay grades, based on academic achievements and experience. Currently, a GS-11 astronaut starts at $59,493 per year; a GS-14 astronaut can earn up to $130,257 per year. To date 13 out of 321 who have flown in space have died in the line of duty or a fatality rate of about 4%.

In comparison, the firefighters in our District get paid on average $125,900 in salary and benefits.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 4, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Another point of comparison is what is happening to other public service workers locally:
1 - In Santa Clara County SEIU's roughly 1,700 local members agreed to accept work furloughs equal to 5 percent of their pay, effectively saving more than 50 full-time positions (but not all of them).
Almost all other Santa Clara County employees, including managers, agreed to furloughs of 7.5 percent of their pay.

2 - In Oakland the firefighters have agreed to increasing their workweek from 52 to 56 hours, while also taking an 8% hourly pay cut. This has the effect of leaving their overall yearly salary largely unchanged: decrease the pay, increase the hours. They also agreed to a change in the way the city covers their medical benefits. It will result in the union membership contributing about $300,000 more per annum, another good savings for the city. In total, the Oakland firefighters union has made about $6 million worth of concessions while not reducing the level of service they provide to the citizens. In fact, due to a complicated provision they were able to field an additional 41 paramedics at no increase in cost.

When talking about comparability it is useful to have this kind of data.

Posted by concerned, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 6, 2009 at 10:34 pm

In the interest of fairness, plush pensions must become a thing of the past by putting a two-tiered system in place for all new hires. In the interest of sanity, this change must occur, and now, because services to the public are being cut back and will continue to be cut back as unaffordable. In case public employees have forgotten, the reason they have their jobs is to provide public services.

I support fair and decent wages and benefits, but the situation is so out of control, and the public is now picking up an ever increasing tab for fewer services and/or diluted services.

Posted by problem needs fixing, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Aug 7, 2009 at 11:08 am

Mr. Leugers' letter makes a lot of sense. I don't support outsourcing, but reducing pension and salary costs will be necessary if we want to maintain services. Peter Carpenter's comparisons make my head spin. Isn't Carpenter a director on the fire district board? How did this crazy situation come to be?

Posted by Frank, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 7, 2009 at 12:16 pm

It seems that a big part of the problem is the absurd price of real estate around here. Although these comments make a great deal of sense, it seems that firefighters ought to be able to afford a home in the communities they are charged with protecting.

Posted by problem needs fixing, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Aug 7, 2009 at 1:28 pm

"...the firefighters in our District get paid on average $125,900 in salary and benefits." -from above Peter Carpenter post

Frank, I think bringing in the price of real estate is blowing smoke. I think the above quote suggests that firefighters make enough money to own a home in the area if they're part of a two-income household, which is how many families here support themselves.

But I still don't think that's the point. Employee costs are not sustainable. We're not going to be able to afford the services those employees are hired to provide if a constantly increasing portion of the district's revenues are eaten up by employee costs. The compensation package is overly generous. I don't endorse unfair or unliveable wages. But compensation has gotten out of hand.

Posted by WhoRUpeople, a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Off the subject of whether or not fire fighters in the MPFPD are over paid or not, and off the subject of whether or not how much the pilot who flies Air Force One makes, Peter Carpenter needs to stop trying to negotiate with the fire fighters union through this forum. I'm not a union supporter, fire fighter or teamster, but I would not negotiate with someone who has shown the bad faith that Mr. Carpenter has shown in this and the previous postings under related Almanac articles on this subject. If the rest of the fire district board supports his comments, then it definitely is time to bring a State mediator into this debate.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Ask today's autoworkers if they enjoyed those glory days of excessively high wages and lots of "no show" jobs. If they had been paid more realistic, market-level wages that were in line with their work, they would be working in a healthy, vibrant industry... instead of a bankrupt one.

I have the greatest respect and admiration for our fire fighters but paying them $125k a year simply isn't sustainable. Unfortunately, we may all have to learn that the hard way.

Posted by Agree, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 7, 2009 at 4:35 pm

The salary is one thing, but the benefits are outrageously expensive. The benefits have to be dealt with, as soon as possible. I'm o.k. with the 2-tiered system, the current benefits were already agreed upon, but anyone new HAS to have a different, more economical plan. Other costs, within the district has to be considered too. I still struggle with a $32M budget, what does $32M annually, REALLY give us?

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 8, 2009 at 1:16 am

As always I will confine my postings to factual statements - if anyone feels that these facts are incorrect please post a corroborated correction (which I will be pleased to acknowledge).

1 - The Fire Board does not negotiate with the union but has designated the Chief and Deputy as the District's negotiators.

2 - Your Fire Board has taken the extraordinary step of requiring that any tentative agreement be made public for 15 days before it is acted upon in public session by the Board.

3 - Negotiations require both parties to be at the table - the Fire Board has twice offered mediation to the union and has issued an open letter urging the union to return to the bargaining table.

4 - Three of the five seats on the Fire Board are up for election in November and concerned citizens of the District have been encouraged to file as candidates for this election. Two of the three incumbents, myself included, have indicated that, after 8 years of service, we will not stand for re-election. See Web Link for candidate filing information.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 8, 2009 at 4:21 am

As of 8 August, with 7 August being the close of the normal candidate filing period, only one incumbent and two other individuals have filed for these three seats.

􀀹Robert J. Silano (Intelligence Analyst) 1259 El Camino Real #125, Menlo Park, 94025 (mail);; (650) 576-3481 (day);
􀀹James M. Harris (Businessman) 570 Kenwood Drive, Menlo Park, 94025 (res.);; (650) 323-4059 (day); DCF 7/30
􀀹Rexford Ianson (Incumbent) 212 Robin Way, Menlo Park, 94025 (res.);; (415) 609-8614 (day); (650) 325-6561 (eve);
DCF 8/03

The County states that 'The candidate filing period will automatically be extended for five (5) calendar days (until August 12) in jurisdictions where no incumbent files to run for office.' This extension will apply to the Fire District since two incumbents did not file.

If no one else files then the three persons who have filed will automatically be seated without an election and without any public scrutiny of their qualifications. In a democracy we get the kind of government which we deserve.

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