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The warnings last fall sounded dire. If San Diegans didn’t pay more taxes, firefighters would be laid off, emergency responses would slow and city residents’ safety would be at risk.

That was the rallying cry used by city firefighters, who championed a half-cent sales tax hike and flexed their muscle by dropping $153,000 on the campaign. In the run up to Election Day, they repeatedly highlighted how previous budget cuts had left fewer engines available to respond to emergencies.

Voters rejected firefighters’ push and the ballot measure, dealing a high-profile blow to the union’s political clout, traditionally revered in city elections.

Firefighters’ warnings, echoed by Mayor Jerry Sanders and others, haven’t come true. This spring, without the tax hike, the City Council increased firefighters’ budget by $12 million. The city restored browned out fire engines and response times improved.

Now firefighters are again playing a leading role in another big budget showdown. But this time, without a bipartisan coalition supporting them, they’re on the defensive as conservatives push to place a pension reform initiative on the June 2012 ballot.

Firefighters have become the lead opposition to a proposal they at one time looked to be exempt from. The mayor sought to exclude firefighters from his pension reform plans, but they ended up on the losing side after Sanders negotiated a compromise with the conservative wing of his party.

As a result, only police officers are shielded from the Republican-backed pension reform initiative that would move new employees to less-secure 401(k)-style retirement plans.

The compromise marked a major political defeat for firefighters, the second in a matter of months. And it showed just how much the fire union’s influence has waned within the halls of power at City Hall as the city’s pension crisis took its toll. Many of the same people who pummeled firefighters in last year’s elections felt confident they could do it again.

Tom Shepard is a long-time San Diego political consultant who worked alongside firefighters last year on the tax increase ballot measure. He called it the biggest defeat for firefighters in recent memory and said next year’s elections would better gauge whether their clout has truly diminished.

“It would be very surprising to me if public attitudes toward firefighters would change that dramatically,” said Shepard, who also advises Sanders and mayoral hopeful Nathan Fletcher. “In a way, that’s going to be the ultimate measure of whether their political influence is waning.”

Firefighters’ New Stature

The recent losses are a contrast from the days before the pension fallout, when the firefighters union, led by Ron Saathoff, was as influential as anyone around City Hall. With a deep knowledge of city finances and tremendous political reach, Saathoff was a force.

At one point years ago, firefighters had a hand in electing each member of the City Council. Even Republican candidates for mayor and council sought and won their prized endorsement — including Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who struck the pension reform compromise that left firefighters on the sidelines.

Now firefighters find themselves on the ropes after years of controversy over public employee benefits and city finances — the same storm that landed Saathoff in investigators’ crosshairs and pushed him out of power.

Headline after headline in recent years has detailed six-figure pensions or referenced the city’s $2.1 billion unfunded pension liability. The city’s annual pension costs are projected to grow to nearly half a billion dollars by 2025, or about double last year’s total.

The moderate Republicans like Sanders who once courted firefighters now stand against them. Even their friends on the Democratic-led City Council don’t give them as much attention as they used to, union president Frank De Clercq said.

And white-collar union head Michael Zucchet said firefighters aren’t alone. Attitudes toward all public employees have changed in the wake of the city’s financial crisis and economic collapse, he said.

“There’s a lot of anger and public employees are being offered up as someone to be angry at,” Zucchet said. “To the extent there has been some erosion, I don’t think it’s specific to firefighters. I think it’s because public employees have been taking absolute hits for the better part of the decade and that’s going to have an effect.”

As public scrutiny of unions intensified, conservative and business-backed groups like the Lincoln Club of San Diego County and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association became more assertive. They battled firefighters on the sales tax increase last fall and won. They pressured Sanders to compromise on the pension reform initiative and won again.

Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the Taxpayers Association, said the last year’s elections and the failure of the sales tax increase exemplified changing attitudes among voters toward public safety unions.

“They’re not just going to buy into rhetoric,” Lutar said. “Supporting firefighters and supporting pension reform are not mutually exclusive. You can still look at firefighters as heroes but also believe we need to have a more sustainable system.”

What’s changed is the perception that winning an election without firefighters’ support or challenging them at the polls is politically unfeasible. Last fall showed firefighters aren’t invincible.

To be sure, firefighters have experienced political defeat in the past. They were part of a coalition to increase the hotel-room tax following the 2003 wildfires that would have, in part, boosted funding for firefighting. And today, they still wield great influence at City Hall. Though the pension reform initiative could affect thousands of city workers, present and future, the firefighters union is the face of its opposition.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher both support the pension reform initiative, but both have sought firefighters’ endorsement in their campaigns for mayor. De Clercq said firefighters still poll far better with voters than any other labor group.

“They say we’re second to only Jesus Christ,” De Clercq said of pollsters. “I walk neighborhoods and people say, ‘Who are you supporting because that’s enough for me.’”

The Pension Reform Battle

Though now engaged in the pension reform battle, firefighters have struggled to articulate their case in interviews with the news media, on Twitter, over the airwaves and aside signature gatherers.

The ballot measure’s supporters have downplayed the need to provide future firefighters a guaranteed pension, saying firefighters won’t face the kind of recruitment or retention problems that San Diego police have seen in the past. Firefighters have tried to combat those arguments by claiming they already face retention issues.

In early August, De Clercq told local media that firefighters had been leaving the city to avoid pension reform. He told Fox 5 that at least 10 firefighters had left for jobs in Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties but didn’t say when.

But the numbers don’t back up De Clercq’s argument. Few firefighters have left San Diego in recent years to work for other agencies, according to department records.

San Diego has more than 800 firefighters and about 180 have left in the last four years. Of those who left, 21 firefighters — or less than 3 percent of the force — went to work for other agencies. Others retired or didn’t report that they left for other agencies.

When De Clercq appeared on Fox 5, just three firefighters had left for other agencies in the previous year.

When asked whether the departures signaled a retention issue, De Clercq pulled back. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a huge problem,” he said.

The recent economic slump has helped retention. With budget shortfalls hitting cities across the country, few places have had enough money to hire firefighters and possibly snatch up San Diego’s. Most firefighters stayed in San Diego rather than risk the now more competitive job market.

De Clercq said he’s not worried about firefighter retention today. He’s more concerned about the future, when the economy might improve and cities offering pensions might hire firefighters again. Then San Diego would be at a disadvantage with 401(k)s, he said.

In an interview, Fire Chief Javier Mainar echoed those concerns, citing two possible impacts of worsening retention: increased training costs and less competent firefighters.

The Fire Department estimates it costs about $30,000 to train each new recruit. “That’s just the time they spend in the academy,” Mainar said. “For every person we lose, that’s $30,000 we lose.”

But proponents say retention won’t become a problem and that the city would still have options to address it if it does. Lutar said the city could boost firefighters’ salaries if retention becomes problematic. She said that would be a more transparent solution than increasing retirement benefits, where the costs aren’t immediately felt.

“Most people don’t take a job because of the pension benefit that’s offered. They agree with the career track,” she said. “We believe they are going to continue to have an interest.”

Mainar said he won’t be taking an official position on the proposal since it’s a political issue. But like De Clercq, he worries about what happens if the market turns around and San Diego is the only major city in California not offering pensions to firefighters.

“We’re just sitting there by ourselves. We’re not in a position to pay more,” he said. “That’s the danger of being on the leading edge of some of these things. If you bet correct, that’s great, but if not, then adjustments have to be made.”

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about public safety and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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