A recently released report from the Menlo Park Fire Protection district shows 12 people, including its chief, had total compensation of more than $300,000 in 2016.
A battalion chief's $387,799 in total compensation made him the top earner, with an engineer/paramedic not far behind at $368,745.
In past years, the fire district has had the highest average pay of any government agency in California. The 2016 comparisons are not yet available, but the 2016 reported pay appears to be higher than it was in 2015, when the state controller's office showed average pay in the fire district of $146,075 and the highest total compensation to be $359,939.
That year the only state agency with a higher average pay was the Industrial Development Financing Advisory Commission, which has only one employee, who made $202,445 that year.
The compensation report was one of eight "Information Only" items on the agenda for the fire district's April 18 governing board meeting.
See the entire report online.
Chuck Bernstein, a fire board member who serves on the district's Finance Committee with board President Peter Carpenter, said he applauds the district's staff for making the state-required report public at the same time it was submitted to the state. Disclosing the information "has shown good faith with the taxpayers," he said.
However, he said, the compensation and benefits are "excessively high" and "do not fit with our communities' norms."
He said he was speaking as an individual, and not for the fire board.
"As the leader of a child care and educational organization," he said, "I am distressed that the average compensation of teachers is roughly one-fourth or one-fifth that of firefighters, with teachers often working more hours and possessing higher levels of education and training."
Chief Harold Schapelhouman said it is not fair to compare firefighters to other public workers. "Outside of law enforcements there isn't that same high expectation of performance and response," as when someone calls 911, he said.
"I expect our personnel to live by a code of personal conduct and behavior that in many cases goes against societal norms today. We still believe in honor, personal integrity, a career of service, duty, sacrifice, compassion and courage where you put the well-being of others and the critical function of a team, before yourself," he said.
"If something occurs, we expect (firefighters) to quickly, efficiently and effectively resolve any emergencies that threaten individuals or the greater good, regardless of the risk or long-term effects it will have on them because they swore an oath to protect and serve," he said.
Chief Schapelhouman said the district pays "our personnel very fairly, given the high cost of local housing, the schedule they work and for the type of difficult and dangerous work that they often do."
"We also have high expectations for their individual performance and problem-solving under, at times, extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. Given the potential long-term effects this can have on their family lives and their own health and psychological well-being, (the pay) probably isn't enough," he said.
Mr. Bernstein said he sees several reasons for the excessive compensation, starting with a "flawed contract-negotiation process." The current contracts, which expire in 2018, were negotiated by senior district officials whom he called "self-interested parties" because their own compensation and benefits would be affected by the negotiations' outcome.
He said board members did not negotiate "because, apparently, incompetent board members' involvement in the past led to unsatisfactory results," but he hopes at least one board member will be on future negotiating teams.
President Carpenter said he believes the current contract "was, after almost 6 years without either a labor agreement or any salary increases, the result of a fair negotiation between the district and the firefighters."
Chief Schapehouman said that at the same time the district was negotiating the contract it was also working to resolve two unfair labor practice suits and an overtime related federal lawsuit.
"I think the fire board showed significant leadership and resolve" during that process he said. They eventually "collectively found a path to full resolution of a very dark chapter in labor/management/board relations," he said.
The compensation report shows Chief Schapelhouman at number eight in total compensation at $325,976. Deputy Chief Donald Long Jr. was number five with $338,862. Two engineer/paramedics, a captain/paramedic, a battalion chief and a division chief also had more total compensation than the chief.
Three of the top four earners had considerable overtime pay. Two engineer/paramedics had $158,457 and $151,516 in overtime, with their overtime earnings surpassing their regular pay. A captain/paramedic had $100,069 in overtime.
Excluding benefits, 15 district employees earned $250,000 or more in total wages in 2016, compared to nine who made that much in 2015.
In January, the district told the Almanac that its 2015 compensation figures were an anomaly, because they included six months of retroactive pay raises from 2014, as well as lump sum settlements from two labor relations cases the district lost.
The 2016 report includes as regular pay: base salary, compensation for emergency medical technician or paramedic credentials (all the district's firefighters are one or the other), holidays, other leave, comp time and jury duty. Also included in total payroll earnings are all types of overtime pay, lump sum payments for annual leave and comp time cash-outs, plus "other pay" for items including being bilingual, having a bachelor's degree or living close to the fire district.
Mr. Bernstein said he thinks the district's past reporting of proposed wage and benefit packages has been "incomplete" and left both the public and board members unable to see total proposed compensation. The "other pay" items are "difficult to quantify because they vary greatly from individual to individual," he said.
Almost every district employee received "other pay" ranging from a low of $1,643 for an employee who appears to have been hired near the end of the year, to a high of $108,408.
Some of the district employees' compensation is paid by outside agencies, usually when district firefighters are deployed to other areas after a disaster, such as a wildfire or winter storm. The state and federal agencies sometimes also pay the district's overtime costs attributed to the absence of deployed employees.
The district hired 20 new firefighters in the past two years and plans to hire 10 more this year. The documents show in 2016, the minimum annual salary for the lowest paid firefighter/EMT was $90,473, before adding in any extra, overtime or lump sum pay.
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