This is one of a series of stories on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's budget and financing. The district covers Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and nearby unincorporated areas. Please see the companion story: Firefighters deserve high pay, chief says.
When the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District voted on a new contract for its firefighters in August 2015, board member Chuck Bernstein was the only one of five board members who voted no.
To make sure his arguments against the contract were heard, including the fact that in the four years of the contract the amount the district spent in pay and benefits for firefighters was predicted to increase by 41 percent, Mr. Bernstein outlined the reasons for his vote in a public letter before the vote.
"I don't think it's any secret that I don't like this agreement. I think we're going to spend the next decade regretting it," he said before the vote.
He also voted against a separate contract with the district's non-firefighter employees. "I felt they weren't consistent with community standards," he said of the two contracts.
At the time, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the 41 percent projected increase was a "worst case" scenario. But, according to the fire district's 2016-17 fiscal year budget documents, the amount of wages and benefits budgeted by the district for this fiscal year is 30 percent more than it was two years ago, in 2014-15.
What Mr. Bernstein now says he didn't know when he was voting against the new contract, however, is that even before it was signed, the district's employees were already among the most highly paid public employees in the state.
In 2014, before the contract was signed, according to the California State Controller's website, the Menlo Park fire district's average wage of $140,488 was the highest of any special district including fire districts, transportation systems, health systems and utility districts in California.
In fact, in 2014, the fire district had the highest average wage in the state of all state and local public employers, including counties, cities, special districts, superior courts, state departments, fairs and expos, public K-12 education, community college districts, state universities, and the University of California system, according to the controller's Government Compensation in California website.
That website says the Menlo Park fire district has been in the top-10 list of average wages of all state and local government employers in California every year since 2009, which is as far back as the website's figures go. At its lowest ranking, the fire district was number 9 in the state in 2010.
In 2015, with the new contract in place, the state controller's website shows the Menlo Park fire district's $146,075 average wage falling to second highest in the state. However, the one agency with a higher average wage in 2015 was the Industrial Development Financing Advisory Commission, which has only one employee, an executive secretary in the CIDFAC/State Treasurer's Office who made $202,445 that year.
Fire districts do tend to have among the highest average wages in the state, and eight of the top 10 public agencies in 2015 were fire districts. The Woodside Fire Protection District was No. 7 on the list with average wages of $122,170, and was No. 2 on the list in 2011 and 2013.
But it is also true that the state controller's office lists more than 440 fire districts in the state and only 15 of them have average wages of more than $100,000.
(The state website figures average wages by taking the total paid in wages by the employer and dividing by the number of employees. It counts part-time and partial-year employees the same as full-time employees.)
The district says it was unaware of that website, or another similar independent website, and that the district's study of compensation at similar agencies did not show the district's wages as being the highest.
However, the district could not answer questions about exactly what was compared in the compensation study, and was attempting to locate the document to share with the Almanac as of Jan. 13.
Can't afford to live here?
It's a refrain that's been heard repeatedly in the past few years: housing prices have become so expensive in the Bay Area, and especially on the Midpeninsula, that essential public servants such as teachers and firefighters just can't afford to live here.
It seems, however, that it's not really fair to lump firefighters and teachers together, at least when it comes to pay in this area.
Menlo Park fire district employees are well-compensated. In 2015 (the latest year posted on the website), 16 of the district's 136 employees had more than $300,000 in total compensation (which includes benefits). According to the California state controller's website, the top earner, a fire captain who is also a paramedic, had nearly $360,000 in total compensation in 2015. There were 77 district employees whose total compensation topped $200,000 in 2015.
The district says the 2015 figures were an anomaly, because they included six months of retroactive pay raises going back to July 2014 that were reported in 2015, as well as some lump sum settlements granted when the district lost two labor relations cases.
But in 2014, before the new contract had been adopted, the district still had 49 of its 114 employees whose total compensation topped $200,000, with 11 of those who had more than $250,000 in total compensation. If the back pay had been paid in 2014 as part of regular wages, the totals would have been even higher that year.
In 2014, excluding benefits, 25 fire district employees topped $175,000 in total pay (including overtime and other lump sum pay).
For the curious, in the Menlo Park City School District (with 510 people on its payroll), six employees had total compensation above $200,000 in 2015.
The only employee whose total compensation was more than $250,000, the district's superintendent, had wages and benefits totaling $269,000. All of those earning above $200,000 in the school district were administrators, with the highest-paid teacher receiving just under $153,000 in total compensation.
Excluding benefits, six school district employees had total pay above $175,000 in 2015, and again all were administrators.
Wages are public records
The money paid to public employees is a matter of public record because it comes from taxpayers, giving the public the legal right to know the details of what is paid to anyone working for a government agency.
In addition to the state controller's Government Compensation in California website, the information can also be found online on Transparent California, an independent website.
The state lists pay details by job title and Transparent California lists pay details by employee name and job title. Both websites say their information came from the agencies, and some agencies have not provided their figures. The numbers listed on the two websites are not identical, but they are very close.
Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he did not know about either of the websites before they were brought to his attention by the Almanac. He said the district will take a close look at them to make sure their figures are correct. But in a meeting on Jan. 10, Kathleen Jackson, the district's administrative services manager, said that the figures on the state website do appear to match the information provided by the district to the state controller's office.
What the records show
The two websites show that many of the fire district's top earners aren't administrators, but firefighters.
In 2014, the state list of the top 10 district employees in total compensation includes two engineer-paramedics and two captain-paramedics along with the four division chiefs, a battalion chief and the fire chief. No. 1 on the list made close to $326,000, and number 10 made just under $254,000, including benefits.
In 2015, the year that included the back pay and labor settlement payments, the top nine on the state website are all fire captain/paramedics or engineer/paramedics. All but one of the employees with total compensation of $300,000 or more are in the fire suppression department, with the chief the only one who is not. In 2015, the district's chief was at No. 12 for total compensation.
Without adding in benefits, when only total wages (base pay, overtime and other onetime or extra pay) are considered, the district's highest-paid employee made $294,370 in 2015. The fire district had 47 employees who made more than $200,000 in total wages, with nine of those making more than $250,000 in total wages in 2015. Once again, all of those making more than $200,000 were firefighters, except for the chief.
In 2014 there were 24 fire district employees who made $175,000 or more in total wages, with 11 of those making $200,000 or more in total wages.
A lot of overtime
Much of the reason for the fire district's high pay totals appears to be overtime. The state website doesn't break out overtime separately in its spreadsheet, but Transparent California says 28 district employees were paid more than $50,000 for overtime in 2015; 10 of those were paid more than $75,000 for overtime; and two of those were paid more than $100,000 ($127,998 and $106,428).
The district says that some firefighters received back overtime pay in 2015, inflating the totals.
In 2014, 11 district employees made more than $50,000 in overtime. The highest went to an engineer/paramedic who had $104,465 in overtime, nearly matching his base salary of $117,477.
Budget documents posted on the district's website show the district spent $3.6 million on overtime pay in 2015-16 and that overtime is budgeted at $2 million in 2016-17.
The district says the reason it spent so much on overtime is because it was understaffed coming out of the recession.
Another reason is that the fire district sends a lot of its firefighters to help with fires and disasters in other areas. In California, those calls for help have been at record levels.
In 2015-16, district employees responded to 16 California fires (mostly wildfires) and the district was reimbursed more than $546,000. Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the district is reimbursed for the firefighters who help out with state fires, but they are not reimbursed for anything spent on overtime for firefighters who have to backfill for the missing firefighters.
When firefighters travel to help out nationally, however, the district is repaid all its costs, including any overtime spent on backfilling for the absent personnel, the district says.
Peter Carpenter, who recently became the president of the fire district's board of directors, said the deployments are valuable to the district. "The people who are deployed get experience and training that it would have cost us millions of dollars to do," he said.
The district hesitated to hire new firefighters for several years, Chief Schapelhouman said, partially because the district did not have a contract with its firefighters between 2008 and the adoption of the contract in August 2015. (It was retroactive to July 2014.) The district was also unsure how much it would have to pay into the state retirement system, which has been undergoing turmoil for several years.
A key point about overtime pay, which Mr. Carpenter said the board has always used "as a key management indicator," is that it does not count toward retirement pay, therefore neither the district nor the firefighters pay a percentage of it into the state retirement system.
The district hired eight firefighters in 2015 and 12 more in 2016, and officials say the district is now fully staffed with the equivalent of 125.5 full-time employees, plus three full-time-equivalent employees funded by grants. Six filled new positions and 14 filled vacant positions.
The district says 16 employees retired or resigned in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 budget years, and that the additional employees were figured in when predicting how much labor costs would rise over the term of the new firefighters' contract.
New fire stations
Employee compensation is not the only thing the fire district has been spending money on. The district also has an ambitious program of capital improvements, with plans to build a new fire station every two years for the next 10 years.
Construction of a new fire station in East Palo Alto (Fire Station 2) was completed in April 2016. Ground was broken on a new downtown Menlo Park fire station (Fire Station 6), and a fire district museum, on Jan. 9 (about six months later than originally scheduled).
The district recently purchased a home at 114 Santa Margarita Ave. in Menlo Park, adjacent to the district's administrative headquarters at 170 Middlefield Road, with the plan of renovating it to house additional administration and fire prevention employees. The district is also considering buying property at St. Patrick's Seminary adjacent to Fire Station 1.
A 10-year "deployment action plan" presented by Chief Schapelhouman in March 2016 calls for the district's station on Middlefield Road (Fire Station 1) to be rebuilt starting in June 2018, and the station on Chilco Street (Station 77) in Menlo Park to be replaced in 2020. In 2022 the plan calls for a new station to replace Station 4 on Alameda de las Pulgas in unincorporated West Menlo Park.
By 2026, the plan sees potential daily staffing of 33 firefighters to work at the expanded stations. Since firefighters work two days on (48 consecutive hours) and four days off, that staffing plan would require at least 99 firefighters.