Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District has proposed a new assessment that would cost the average homeowner an additional $27.50 per year.

Metro Fire seeks new charge on property owners

Published: Sunday, Mar. 23, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 - 3:38 pm

Though the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District has long had some of the highest-paid public employees in the capital region, Fire Chief Kurt Henke says that Metro Fire has curbed the financial excesses of the past through cuts to salaries and benefits.

Still, Henke says that the cost-cutting can only go so far, and the department’s revenue is projected to fall $32,000 short of its $153 million in expenses this year. The recession, he says, hit the agency particularly hard because it largely relies on property taxes.

To shore up its budget and restore services that were closed, Metro Fire has proposed a new assessment that would cost the average homeowner an additional $27.50 per year.

Metro Fire’s governing board expects to vote on the proposal Thursday. If approved by the board, ballots will be mailed to property owners next month for an election as required under state law. Votes are weighted by the amount of existing property taxes each owner pays, and the measure must receive 50 percent plus one vote for approval.

The additional $12 million a year would allow Metro Fire to reopen three stations and restore two engine companies, Henke said. This would help ease a major slide in how long it takes the district to respond to fires.

“Four or five years ago, this organization did not have credibility with the community,” Henke said. Now, Metro Fire’s standing should be improved because “we have gotten our financial house in order.”

To generate support, Henke has been meeting with groups across the county, including the Sacramento Taxpayers Association last week. Some of Metro Fire’s biggest critics, including pension system critic Marcia Fritz and conservative watchdog Craig Powell, were in attendance.

Association members hit Henke with pointed questions about Metro Fire salaries, in part because the state Controller’s Office released data last week showing that four of Sacramento County’s 10 highest-paid local government officials in 2012 worked for the department, as well as nearly half of the top 100. The highest paid Metro Fire employee was a fire captain who earned $349,259 in wages and $66,288 in benefits, according to the Controller’s Office data.

“You have people making more than the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Bob Matteoli. “How can you justify that?”

“I can’t,” Henke replied.

Another association director, Diane Schachterle, said her husband, a retired California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection employee, was taken aback by Metro Fire salaries. “He was speechless, and that doesn’t happen often.”

Henke said the salaries that Metro Fire reported for 2012 overstated the income of many employees because the fire agency double-counted overtime. The department plans to send revised data to the State Controller’s Office this week.

In 2011, 30 of the 100 highest-paid city, county and special district employees in Sacramento County worked for Metro Fire. Each of those employees earned at least $200,000 in combined wages, overtime, bonuses and vacation cash-outs. Henke said overtime was reported properly that year.

Sacramento Taxpayers Association members appreciated Henke’s candor on the 2012 salary mistake and thought he made an effective presentation, said executive director Bob Blymyer.

Still, it’s not clear to association members that Metro Fire has done enough to reduce labor costs, he said. In the next few weeks, members will review budgets from Metro Fire to help decide whether or not to endorse the tax proposal.

Promoted to chief in 2011, Henke at first seemed an unlikely choice to lead Metro Fire out of its financial troubles. He previously was head of the firefighters union in Vallejo, where he negotiated contracts that were widely viewed as a major factor in the city’s bankruptcy filing.

Yet Henke said he learned from his mistakes in Vallejo and has won concessions from the union in Sacramento. He said firefighters have agreed to wage freezes and higher pension contributions.

But those reductions were not enough to prevent the closure of stations and engine companies, and Metro Fire’s response times have gotten slower. The National Fire Protection Association has set a standard that calls for departments to arrive on scene within four minutes of receiving a dispatch, in 90 percent of calls. Metro Fire hit the standard 55 percent of the time last year, down from 64 percent in 2007, according to department statistics.

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

Read more articles by Brad Branan

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