Another View: Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District tries to rein in costs

Published: Wednesday, Mar. 26, 2014 - 12:00 am

The public employee compensation data reported last week by The Bee rightly had the public asking: Who’s looking out for taxpayers? (“What’s special about special fire districts? Pay” Editorials, March 22)

The problem is the data provided by Metro Fire to the state controller contained errors that inflated pay figures. Metro Fire double-counted overtime as salary and additional wages, more than doubling the number of Metro Fire employees who appeared in the top 100. Wages of an employee cited in the editorial were inflated by $108,000, as a result of Metro Fire’s error.

Even with these corrections, wages and benefits at Metro Fire have been too generous for too many years.

The current board, in concert with Fire Chief Kurt Henke and the firefighters’ union, acknowledged this fact in 2011-12 when we began overhauling our pay and benefits package. I believe this set of reforms – which totals more than $10 million per year and $192 million over the long term – is unmatched by any public agency in California.

More importantly, they helped mitigate further disastrous reductions in public safety services resulting from the loss of $24 million annually of our primary revenue source: property tax.

We froze wages at 2008 levels – despite a legacy contract that promised 12 percent increases. We cut the fire chief’s pay, at his request, by 20 percent. We cut firefighter take-home pay by 12 percent by requiring they begin contributing to pensions. We lowered starting pay for new firefighters by $6,108 and lowered educational incentive payments by 5.5 percent for their first five years. To address large lump-sum payments, we reduced sick leave accruals by 50 percent for new employees.

Before Gov. Jerry Brown’s pension reform, Metro Fire adopted a lower formula for new employees.

We created a vesting schedule, requiring a change to state law, for retiree health benefits. Most dramatically, we capped health benefits and required contributions from employees and retirees, with contributions prefunding retiree health. We cut our unfunded liability by $92 million.

By the end of this year, almost half of employees will be under the new, reduced pay and benefits package. It now makes fiscal sense to hire new employees and reduce overtime.

Still, the corrected data for 2012 reflect significant overtime wages. This was a strategic decision because hiring fully benefited firefighters would have cost $4.6 million more. At times, 30 to 50 employees were actually ordered to work overtime. Some overtime was attributable to assistance to other jurisdictions, which reimbursed $2 million to Metro Fire.

Considering the steps undertaken to protect public safety and taxpayer dollars from the worst economic recession in our lifetime, it is ironic and unfortunate that Metro Fire would be taken to task for pay numbers that were neither accurate nor reflective of the true story.

Randy Orzalli is Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District board president.

Read more articles by Randy Orzalli

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