handheld edition: California Forum

Editorial: Metro Fire feels the heat, cuts the excess

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, June 17, 2012

For a decade or more, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District has been the poster child in the region for public employee compensation excess.

Governed by a board that had been captured by its firefighter union workforce, the district heaped double-digit percentage salary increases on top of hefty benefit giveaways. According to figures compiled by the state controller and displayed on the accompanying chart, in 2010 the average Metro Fire firefighter earned a staggering $128,805 a year, almost $34,000 more than Sacramento city firefighters, who at $95,000 were not underpaid.

More than 140 Metro Fire retirees collect pensions of $100,000 a year or more. The district's former fire chief, Don Mette, is No. 8 on the list of the state's top 10 public employee pensioners, collecting more than $240,000 a year in retirement pay.

But the recession has changed Metro Fire. Faced with dwindling property tax revenue and flirting with the potential of major service reductions and possibly big layoffs, the district with the cooperation of firefighter union Local 522 has taken steps in recent years to change course on its fiscal ship. Other financially strapped local governments should take notice.

Metro Fire salaries have been frozen at 2008 levels. Union members agreed to forgo increases that had been part of their contract. The new fire chief took a 20 percent pay cut. He earns $234,900 – $32,000 less than his predecessor.

Working with union leaders, the district also won concessions that require firefighters to contribute more to their retirement fund. In 2008, Metro Fire employees, like many government workers across the region, contributed nothing for benefits that allow them to retire as young as age 50 with 90 percent of pay. Employee retirement contribution rates have risen steadily over the last year, from 6 percent of pay to 9 percent. On July 1, Metro Fire firefighters will start paying 12 percent of pay to fund their own retirement.

In addition, senior staff at the district have already started chipping in $100 a month toward a fund for retiree health care. The rank and file are expected to start contributing a similar amount in October. Significantly, district leaders say they have secured an agreement in which retirees will kick in $100 a month toward health care as well.

Here's another important change: With the agreement of the union, the district has modified the way it calculates overtime. No longer is overtime computed based on base salary plus myriad pay incentives firefighters typically earn for things like education credits or hazardous materials training. Overtime is now calculated on base pay alone. That change by itself saves the district an estimated $4 million annually.

Kurt Henke, Metro Fire's new chief, is the improbable architect of the change. He was the firefighter union leader in Vallejo when that city filed for bankruptcy protection. Pay and benefit levels for firefighters were seen as a major factor in Vallejo's financial collapse.

Henke told The Bee's editorial board last week that he thinks unions, senior managers and elected officials share the blame for the financial crisis facing state and local governments in California. If there is one thing he's learned, he says it's that one-time money should never be used to pay for ongoing expenses.

Sacramento County's property tax revenues continue to decline. Metro Fire is not out of the financial deep woods yet. More trimming will be necessary. And though a change in the makeup of its governing board has helped this district make needed reforms, a stand-alone fire district like Metro Fire is a deeply flawed governance model.

When elected officials make decisions on public employee pay and benefits, firefighters should have to stand side by side with police officers, schoolteachers, social workers and others. That's the best way to ensure equitable treatment for all workers, and taxpayers.

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