For months, supporters of San Diego’s sales tax increase have hammered home that city fire services need more money.

Previous cuts might have contributed to the death of a toddler in Mira Mesa over the summer and tax backers argue more cuts are on the way without new money.

For the same amount of months, opponents of the sales tax ballot measure, Proposition D, have tried to chip away at that argument. Their efforts haven’t gained much traction. Until Wednesday.

City Councilman Carl DeMaio, one of Prop. D’s main antagonists, unveiled a report showing nearly all city firefighters receive extra pay above their salaries for having emergency medical certifications. Firefighters now have such certifications just to get their jobs, and virtually all firefighters hold them.

Why, DeMaio asked, should firefighters receive more money just for doing their jobs?

“This would be like opening up the newspaper or going on Craigslist for a help-wanted ad and it says law firm seeks lawyer,” DeMaio said. “Attractive compensation package. And if you have a law degree a bonus is provided.”

The extra pay cost the city $5.4 million this year. DeMaio argued it should be eliminated, or at the least subsidize firefighter overtime costs so the city can restore some rotating fire engine closures, known as brownouts. Since the $11.5 million saved annually by closing engines comes from reducing firefighter overtime, money to restore the engines would go directly to firefighters.

But DeMaio went further than that. He called the practice “a hidden bonus” and a “dubious, unjustified payment.”

Cutting the extra payment would be equivalent to giving firefighters an 8.5 percent pay cut.

His report prompted a sharp response from fire Chief Javier Mainar, who stood in front of uniformed firefighters at an afternoon press conference to accuse DeMaio of “lying about my department.”

“I’ve had it,” Mainar said. “I don’t want to deal with it anymore. It is disingenuous for him to represent things the way he has repeatedly done.”

This pay, Mainar argued, has never been hidden. And it’s been included in all comparative studies of firefighter compensation the city has done for years. Further, Mainar said, the city should pay its firefighters more for specialized skills.

Mike McGhee, an official with the city’s fire union, rejected DeMaio’s call for trading emergency medical pay for overtime pay.

“Not everybody works overtime,” McGhee said. “It’s not a fair trade.”

If DeMaio’s goal is to reduce city firefighter compensation, McGhee said, he should just ask firefighters to take a pay cut.

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at or 619.550.5663 and follow him on Twitter:

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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