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Connecting the Dots (Part 2)

Columnist: Bob Andrews
October, 2013 Issue
Columnist

Bob Andrews
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Last month, we explored the curious money/water/maintenance shortage that affected the Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department toward the end of the city’s fiscal year on June 30, resulting in the brown out of many parks at the same time the city-owned golf course remained lushly green. Did this have anything to do with the two high-ranking Rec and Parks officials who retired unexpectedly after it was discovered they’d received years of unreported freebies at the golf course? Or is it just a money issue? Where could the City Council find the money needed to keep parks and schools green and to hire back some of the 39 Rec and Parks workers laid off during the recession?
 
 
 
In June, the City Council adopted a budget for 2013-2014, spending 9 percent more than the previous year. Check out Santa Rosa’s “Operations & Maintenance Budget” online, all 232 pages of it. It doesn’t allocate enough money to ensure parks and school grounds will remain green throughout the fiscal year. As to staffing, the tiny bone thrown to Rec and Parks is this: “The Recreation and Parks Department staffing level is increased by .5 FTE (full time equivalent) to convert a part-time senior administrative assistant to full-time.” No help at all for park maintenance.
 
 
 
So where does the city's money primarily go? The answer, this year, is the same as it’s been for many previous years: police and firefighters. There’s no doubt they have the most powerful public employee unions. The City Council consists of a retired Santa Rosa police officer and a majority of other members elected with specific support of police and fire unions. The police and fire department budgets account for almost 60 percent of the total General Fund budget.
 
 
 
The power of these unions springs partly from backing political candidates and partly from getting voters to approve ballot measures in the name of public safety. In 1996, the unions got voters to approve binding arbitration for police and firefighters, despite the strong fiscal objections of the police chief and fire chief. When combined with a “comparable pay and benefits” provision buried in the ballot measure, binding arbitration effectively eliminated the city’s bargaining power with police and fire unions. Since then, the pay and benefits for these union members have skyrocketed far beyond pay and benefit increases for other city employees.
 
 
 
Then came Measure “O” in 2004, a 20-year sales tax increase to fund public safety, 40 percent to police, 40 percent to the fire department and 20 percent to gang prevention and youth programs. Seemingly few voters realized the money raised simply offset the steeply rising pension costs for police and firefighters. Measure “O” also contained a “full employment for police and firefighters” provision, stating their budgets shall not fall below the budgets as adopted in 2004, adjusted annually for inflation, unless a lower level of funding is approved by six out of seven City Council members. Think about the potential for inflation-compounded budget expansion based on this clever language. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint—a series of budget crises forced council members to overrule the mandatory increases several times.
 
 
 
But let’s keep track of the key question here: Where could the City Council get enough money—let’s say $500,000 this fiscal year—to make sure parks and school grounds remain green? In the 2013-2014 budget, the city added six and one-half new police officer positions and six new firefighters. Do you know what it costs Santa Rosa for one police officer or firefighter? I obtained the complete list of 2012 compensation—pay and benefits—for all city employees. Alphabetically, I took the first 10 police officers on the list and came up with these averages per officer: $88,867 base pay, $6,380 overtime and $15,238 “other pay,” totaling an average gross pay per officer of $110,485. Add to this $16,470 for medical/dental/vision insurance, $37,239 pension contribution, $6,850 employer-paid “employee” pension contribution, $2,889 “other retirement” costs, $1,618 life and disability insurance and $5,432 “other monetary costs” paid by the city. The average cost now increases to $180,983.
 
 
 
Think that’s a lot? Hold onto your fire helmets and remember what a retired New York City police detective told me: “Everyone wants to be a firefighter and nobody wants to be a cop.” I ran the pay and benefits numbers for the first 10 firefighters on the city list for 2012. Average base pay was $102,006, plus average overtime pay of $36,209 and average “other pay” of $17,557, for total average gross pay of $155,772. This is 41 percent higher than the average gross pay of the police officers. You may logically ask: Why is overtime so high? That’s because of the way fire shifts are scheduled, for example “24 hours on,” such that a firefighter has built-in overtime. Not only does this provide sharply higher pay, it also lets some firefighters have other jobs during their “off” time.
 
 
 
Then add $15,160 for medical/dental/vision insurance, $35,857 in pension contributions, $10,083 employer-paid “employee” pension contribution, $5,794 “other retirement costs,” $1,952 life and disability insurance and $8,426 “other monetary costs.” The total average now is an astounding $233,044. This is 29 percent higher than the average cost per police officer and tells us that every four firefighters cost the city close to $1 million per year.
 
 
 
For confirmation of this disparity, just check out the part of the budget report that describes the use of Measure “O” funds. Remember that the police department and the fire department receive the same percentage (40 percent) of Measure “O” taxes. But the fire department money funds only 10 positions while the police department money funds 19.
 
 
 
And now we’ve just learned (at a City Council meeting on August 6) that Santa Rosa’s pension costs are about to skyrocket, going up an estimated $12 million by 2020. At that point, police and fire pension costs alone could amount to more than 50 percent of pensionable pay. Where will that money come from? Does it make sense for firefighters to be paid so much more than police officers? Should we consider privatization of the fire department? Without changes, our current three-alarm fiscal fire will become five alarms within a few short years, leaving scorched earth in our parks and elsewhere.

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