Editorial: What’s special about special fire districts? Extravagant pay

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2014 - 3:00 pm

Stand-alone special district fire departments in California are very special, indeed.

Their boards of directors don’t have to weigh fire service against other public priorities as city councils and county boards of supervisors must do, so they freely dispense excessive wages and benefits.

In our region, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, a combination of smaller fire departments in Sacramento County that merged over the years into a special district, continues to be the poster child of special district extravagant pay.

It is not alone. Special district fire departments in Santa Barbara County, Contra Costa County, San Mateo County and across the state also dish out exorbitant pay, as the State Controller’s database shows.

Six-figure wages, plus benefits, are the norm.

Of 693 Metro Fire employees in 2012, two-thirds made more than $100,000 a year in wages – not including benefits. Add in benefits and more than 500 of the 693 Metro Fire employees earned more than $100,000.

One fire captain, a job that requires a community college certificate and five years’ experience, earned $241,127 in wages, plus $66,288 in benefits. That’s an outrageous $307,415.

The people who pay the property taxes that fund these unreasonably high wages and benefits earn a whole lot less. The median household income, which includes wages and benefits, in Sacramento County was $55,846 in 2012, according to the U.S. census.

The median income for Metro Fire was $122,193.

No one questions the value of firefighters. Stations can get one to 40 calls a day, from medical calls, their major duty these days, to fires to false alarms to crashes to explosions. But other public servants such as police officers and teachers, provide valuable service as well.

The important question is whether a stand-alone fire district should exist at all.

Why not dissolve Metro Fire and roll it into the county, with funding and oversight by the county Board of Supervisors? Or shift Metro Fire from an independent special district that is governed by its own nine-member board to a “dependent” special district that is governed by the county Board of Supervisors.

Then firefighters would need to compete for public dollars with sheriff’s deputies, Child Protective Services workers, highway maintenance staff, librarians and other public servants.

When smaller departments merged to form the Metro Fire special district, the idea was that it would save money through lower overhead costs, fewer management positions and economies of scale in purchasing equipment and supplies. But with $112 million a year of its $155 million budget coming from property taxes, with little scrutiny from the public, the money has gone to unreasonably high wages and benefits.

Bringing about change in the Metro Fire governance structure is a job for the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, which includes county Supervisors Jimmy Yee, Susan Peters and alternate Phil Serna, plus Metro Fire board member Gay Jones. LAFCO needs to review the services and costs of this special district and recommend change to its governance.

If LAFCO fails to act on its own, 10 percent of registered voters in the Metro Fire special district should bring a petition.

Metro Fire needs a new structure to improve cost-effectiveness and promote public accountability. There needs to be a new sense of moderation, balance and restraint – and an end to the reign of six-figure incomes among these public servants.

Editor’s note: This is a corrected version. An earlier version of this editorial reflected incorrect data provided by Metro Fire.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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