According to the mayor’s fire salary study released in February, San Diego firefighters rank at or near the bottom when compared to 19 other cities in Southern California and Arizona.

Fire Chief Tracy Jarman told the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee in February that she is concerned about developing a retention problem similar to the one we’ve experienced with police. She stated that she can see a trend developing that could turn San Diego into a training ground for other departments. While we’ve heard a lot about the many applicants for the fire academy, the city had to extend the sign-up deadline and put on an all-out media blitz when only 50 people initially signed up. The ultimate number of applicants was half the number the city saw just a few years ago.

Nevertheless, we have not offered a lot of hope to fire fighters about better compensation. Since the Cedar Fires, here’s what we’ve done to thank them: In 2005, we froze their pay, meaning they’ve had no raises for two years. We also required them to contribute another 5.7 percent toward the cost of their benefits, so their take home pay actually went down. In light of our fiscal situation, I supported all these steps, as did the fire fighters themselves, who signed labor agreements without going to impasse. They were working with us to support the city’s fiscal recovery. In the aggregate, that labor agreement reduced the pension deficit by $350 million.

Then, in 2005, the city attorney began his lawsuit to invalidate the benefits of city employees, including fire fighters. That effort has been an obviously resounding failure. While it may not induce fear in employees, it’s certainly not boosting morale.

This year, the mayor proposed yet another year of no pay increase for fire (while the police get 9 percent and other employees 4 percent). In addition to not giving them a raise, we are trimming firefighters’ health benefits so that we can get more buying power out of our huge employee population. While I support that health care consolidation, a number of fire fighters will not get the money that they used to get from unused health care allocations. That means another pay hit of up to $4,000 per year for some fire fighters.

I supported every one of the many parts of the mayor’s proposal, including the elimination of the fire health care plan, plus a modest 2 percent increase. That 2 percent would not be enough to offset any of the sacrifices the fire fighters have made in the past three years, or even for many of them, the health care hit from this year alone.

This, I learned, was the end of the world. Over the last week, I have read about how my colleagues and I are dominated by the “powerful employee labor unions,” especially the nefarious firefighters union. I have gained the impression that the word “union” in Union-Tribune is not a tribute to Ron Saathoff.

The police raise — totally warranted — will end up costing over $20 million annually. A 2 percent increase for fire would have cost $2 million annually, out of a projected general fund budget of $1.103 billion. It would not have increased our pension contribution beyond what is already budgeted — a 2 percent increase would still reduce our long-term pension obligation, since the current pension projections are based on an assumed annual 4.25 percent pay increase.

My colleague Toni Atkins wondered insightfully: If the fire union has actually dominated city politics and policy, why do San Diego fire fighters rank so low in pay? Whether or not the unions ever owned the city, it is now accepted standard practice for our city to under appreciate or even openly bash the employees who fight our fires, collect our trash, fix our pipes and staff our parks. That’s a shame, and it can’t be good for the delivery of service or for retaining trained employees.

The right thing to do was to thank our fire fighters, give them 2 percent and apologize for not being able to do more.


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