Almanac

Viewpoint - July 27, 2011

Editorial: Fire board tightens wage policy

In another indicator of the downward pressure on public employee compensation, local fire district board members agreed last week to change the criteria they use in negotiating pay and benefits for firefighters other employees.

The new policy, which will come up for final approval in a few weeks, would not rely solely on what other fire districts pay, but instead look at whether there is a "sufficient number of qualified applicants" willing to work at the pay offered, which will be based on other comparables. For example, if 100 or more persons apply for an opening, as is often the case, a presumably lower salary will be considered enough to attract applicants who are "qualified and committed to high quality service to the community."

Board members believe that as long as there is a qualified and eager pool of job seekers willing to work for less money, the district will hire them at a pay scale based on current economic conditions, the regional unemployment rate, and how many qualified applicants apply.

It is no surprise that the district is attempting to pull the plug on high compensation for firefighters, although the firefighters' union is certain to fight it. Board members and Chief Harold Schapelhauman have been at loggerheads with the union for three years over the union's effort to win approval for an 11 percent salary increase.

Negotiations reached multiple impasses and long after the district board refused to go along with the increase, members voted in April to impose terms of a new contract on Local 2400 of the Menlo Park Firefighters Association. The firefighters' union has appealed to the Public Employee Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices, but that case could take several more years to be resolved.

During the economic downturn, sentiment for public employee unions, especially those with high pay and benefits, has turned sour. And in our view, by seeking a pay increase, firefighters are not making many friends when similar unions are substantially lowering their expectations.

With 41 of about 115 firefighters in the Menlo Park district receiving more than $200,000 a year in salary, overtime and benefits, and 51 others receiving more than $150,000, the union may be pricing itself out of the market. Other Peninsula communities are looking at consolidating fire departments. The latest move is to merge Central County Fire (Burlingame and Hillsborough) with Millbrae and San Bruno. San Carlos recently farmed its fire department out to Calfire, which pays its firefighters much lower wages.

In the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, it will take some time for the new compensation policy to have much of an impact on the district's bottom line. But we like the common sense approach in the document, which lays out nine principles to be followed in setting wage levels, including a commitment to fairness, performance-based pay, and fiscal sustainability. The policy also commits the district to 100 percent transparency with respect to every worker's pay package, including the cost of health, pension and other benefits.

The current downturn hit all segments of the economy hard, including local governments. The state, cities and special districts are scrutinizing every expenditure. At the fire district, employee compensation makes up 80 percent of the budget, due in part to salaries and benefits that have pushed total compensation for many firefighters over $150,000 a year. Under current plans, after 30 years of service, firefighters will be able to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their highest pay for life, and also receive full health coverage. Local taxpayers can no longer afford to support such grandiose compensation plans. The fire districts new employee compensation policy is a step in the right direction.

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