So I was surprised the other day to see businessman Steve Francis’s think tank, the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, trumpeting a poll that showed the public supported a pay increase for San Diego firefighters.

Obviously this is kind of a moot point as the City Council and mayor decided a couple of weeks ago not to raise firefighter salaries across the board.

Nonetheless, it was a pivotal issue. The mayor took the unprecedented step of giving police a large raise the same year he proposed freezing the salaries of the firefighters. And it forced several City Council members to make difficult decisions about whether to go with the mayor or support the firefighters — who would have accepted a 2 percent across-the-the board raise proposed by Council President Scott Peters.

I noticed a comment from Francis in the press release about the poll that mildly criticized the mayor for not giving the raise.

The poll, conducted by Competitive Edge, reported this:

In the latest SDI/CERC Public Opinion Barometer, 61 percent of San Diegans disagree with the Council and Mayor’s decision not to give City firefighters a 2 percent raise.

And Francis said this:

When it comes to firefighter’s salaries, the public seems to be saying that they wished City leaders had looked harder for cuts that could have been made to fund a small pay raise for the men and women of the San Diego Fire and Rescue Department.

I called Francis to clarify. Was he saying the firefighters should get a raise? Was he criticizing the mayor and City Council for not giving one?

“I criticized the way it was handled — treating the firefighters as a commodity whose value the market determines,” Francis said. “In regards to whether or not they should have been given a raise or not certainly it should have been looked at more seriously.”

This is interesting. You’ll remember the mayor justified freezing the salaries of firefighters on the idea that, because so many people want to be firefighters, there was no logical reason for raising their salaries. The message to the firefighters from the mayor being, like a good free-market man, if you want more money, quit and find a better job.

This view was backed up by Erik Bruvold, who is the president and CEO of Francis’ think tank, which put out the poll.

Bruvold hosted our own Café San Diego not too long ago. He wrote a series of posts justifying the use of the market to determine firefighters and city employees pay.

Here was Bruvold’s first post that day. This was the thrust of the piece:

It really isn’t too much of a reach to say that when we talk about fairness when distributing scarce resources. It isn’t too far until we are talking about asking “from each according to ability and to each according to his needs” as well as the kind of wallpaper that would look good at the dachas of party officials.

That is why a second way of resolving this debate is so attractive — using market signals to determine what wages are needed to attract and retain quality employees. Is recruitment a problem? Are too many of our employees quitting? Is morale so low that productivity is suffering?

Now I believe the answer to these justifies the mayor’s course of action.

I had assumed Francis thought along the same lines.

Nope.

Besides holding that firefighters weren’t commodities for the market to price, he said there was money in the budget to fund a raise for firefighters.

“When you’re, as a city, giving $6 million to the arts and half a million to the opera, there’s money available,” Francis said. “When you go to the opera, you see a lot of people wearing fur coats. I think it sends a terrible message to the firefighters to tell them that you’re not willing to give them a small 2 percent raise, which is below inflation rates, at the same time you give money to the opera. I’m not sure why we’re subsidizing these arts programs when we’re not taking care of our men and women in public safety.”

Meet Steve Francis, the populist.

SCOTT LEWIS

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