Hefty Paychecks for Police Officers and Firefighters in California

fire-truckIn 2015, five San Jose police officers each made more than $400,000.

A payroll error? In fact, they earned every penny by the book.

Hefty compensation, it turns out — including regular pay, overtime and benefits — is not unusual for public safety employees in California.

“It is routine now for firefighters to be up over $200,000, $300,000,” said Mark Bucher, chief executive officer of the California Policy Center, a public policy think tank. “Look at just about any city and you’ll see the same thing.”

Take, for example, the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, which covers a portion of southern Contra Costa County.

The county’s median household income is roughly $80,000.

One reason for the high compensation: It can be cheaper for jurisdictions to pay big overtime — at 1.5 times or double regular pay — than it would be to add staff because of the pension liabilities attached to each new hire.

For San Ramon firefighters, every dollar of salary means roughly one more dollar in pension contributions, said Paige Meyer, the fire chief. “When I’m paying over $2 for a full-time employee and I can pay a dollar and a half for overtime,” he said, “I’ve got a substantial savings.”

As a result, a firefighter paramedic with a salary of $87,700 who puts in long overtime hours can end the year with total compensation well above a quarter-million dollars.

Pensions guaranteed to California police and fire personnel allow them to retire in their 50s and draw 70 percent or more of their peak pay as long as they live. Most private sector employees have no pensions.

Public safety unions say the pay packages ensure a well-earned retirement for workers in bruising jobs. Mike Mohun, president of the San Ramon firefighters union, said the focus should be on lifting other occupations to the same standard.

“When I see someone attacking the benefits the Fire Department receives or the Police Department receives, my concern is: Why wouldn’t you expect the same for yourself?” he said. “We should act as a beacon.”

Public policy experts, however, say safety workers’ pensions are playing a part in pushing a number of California cities toward bankruptcy.

“We already have a crisis,” said Joe Nation, a professor of public policy at Stanford University. “How does it end? It will be a political fix. Or, you’ll have lots of cities that just say, ‘Uncle. We can’t do this.’”

For financially troubled cities, that could mean sharp cuts to basic services, he said.

This piece was originally published by the New York Times.