Board OKs increasing firefighter pay by $17 million over five years | September 5, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - September 5, 2018

Board OKs increasing firefighter pay by $17 million over five years

by Barbara Wood

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District's board usually conducts its meetings with little public input, but just before the board's Aug. 30 meeting to consider approving a five-year contract with the district's firefighters' union, emails started to flood board members' inboxes.

By its end, the five-year contract, which the board approved by a 4-1 vote, increases wages and benefits by an average of $58,726 in additional annual spending for each of the union's 102 employees. A consultant's report shows the district's spending on those employees increasing from the current level by a cumulative $17.04 million over the contract's life.

All of the emails urged "no" votes on the contract, and many appeared to have been prompted by a call to action by former Menlo Park City Council member Lee Duboc. "Huge Fire District salaries and pension obligations that are salary based are driving up the cost of living here, and will continue, even after the inevitable downturn occurs," she wrote to her Menlo Park's Future group. "If you think the District should rethink the proposed increase, email the Directors," she wrote.

District officials say the fire district now has an unfunded pension liability of $39.3 million.

Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs was one of those who emailed. "I suspect very few residents would knowingly vote yet more money to our very, very highly paid and benefited fire fighters," he wrote. "There have to be limits, no matter how much we respect the work of the District."

Despite the emails, the fire board voted, with only board President Chuck Bernstein dissenting, to approve the new contract.

"It's costly like everything else," is for local residents, said board member Rob Silano. "I feel they should have the best services and the best firefighters around. We have that," he said. "We can afford to pay for that."

But Bernstein had the opposite view. "I think the average increases are way beyond the norm of our community," he said, adding that increasing wages and benefits for a workforce that already has higher incomes than many local taxpayers do "adds insult to injury."

"I think the money would be better spent within the district" for things such as new fire stations, an improved alerting system and building up the district's disaster volunteer organization, Bernstein said.

The board's vote came just days after the California State Controller's Office released figures showing that, for the second consecutive year, the fire district has the highest average wage of any California state or local agency. With the addition of more than a half-dozen new entry-level firefighters and several retirements in 2017, the district's average wage at $166,568 was slightly down from 2016, by $3,184. The second- highest average wage in the state was at the San Ramon Valley Fire District, at $158,840.

Board member Peter Carpenter said the state listing is misleading, because many individual firefighters in the state make higher wages than Menlo Park's firefighters.

A district report shows that in 2017, Menlo fire had 24 employees who made more than $300,000 in salary, benefits and district-paid retirement contributions.

Separate contracts cover the district's nonfirefighting employees and management above the level of captain. The firefighters' union includes fire inspectors and a deputy fire marshal.

The contract is retroactive to June 24 and goes through June 23, 2023. The union's previous four-year contract expired on June 23.

A consultant's analysis of the contract shows that while the district's spending on compensation for those in the firefighters' union will rise by a cumulative $17.04 million by the end of the contract, a little more than $7 million of that increase would have occurred if the recently expired contract had been extended. The compensation amounts in the analysis do not include overtime.

The district's costs under the contract would go up an average of 5.35 percent a year.

In addition to the increases in base pay, the district's firefighters will get extra pay for the emergency medical technicians or paramedics credentials they all hold. That extra pay will increase from the current monthly $320 for EMTs and $1,175 for paramedics to $613 for EMTs and $1,594 for paramedics by July 2022.

In 2022, the contract also adds a higher step category for firefighter engineers and the fire marshal, giving any employees already at the top of those categories an additional 5 percent raise.

As long as district employees receive an annual evaluation of "satisfactory," they get an additional 5 percent "step increase" each year until they have topped out in the pay scale. District officials say that about 50 percent of the firefighters are at the top of the pay scale.

Among the increased benefits for the firefighters in the contract are: increases of at least $400 a year in district-paid health plan premiums, a more than 50 percent increase in the district's monthly Post Employment Health Plan contributions, and a 66 percent increase in the monthly stipend for living within 60 air miles of the district.

The contract also includes an agreement the district's board first approved for one year in 2017 allowing a fire captain to work a four-day, 40-hour week as a training captain, but to be paid at the 56-hour-per-week rate, plus a 10 percent premium. The captain is also allowed to work overtime hours on days off.

Only one member of the public attended the late-afternoon special meeting, which was posted by the district 24 hours in advance.


There are no comments yet for this post