Is this fire contract the best city can do?

Smoke pours from a home where three Sacramento city firefighters were injured Monday morning. The City Council votes Tuesday night on a new contract for firefighters.
Smoke pours from a home where three Sacramento city firefighters were injured Monday morning. The City Council votes Tuesday night on a new contract for firefighters. rpench@sacbee.com

Absolutely, firefighters in Sacramento and elsewhere do dangerous work. Just Monday morning, three were injured in a blaze in South Sacramento.

Still, their pay – like salaries for other city workers – has to be viewed in terms of what taxpayers can afford.

So it’s telling that City Manager John Shirey won’t dare call the new contract with Sacramento firefighters a “good deal.” Instead, he says the pact up for City Council approval Tuesday night could be a “fair deal” – if the firefighters union helps find savings to offset some of the contract’s cost, mostly a cumulative 12 percent pay hike by December 2016.

Maybe even more revealing, Shirey let on that council members spent more time on this contract – all behind closed doors – than any other during his three-plus years on the job. That’s no coincidence: The firefighters union is a powerful and generous player in city politics.

Of the eight council members, three newly elected ones weren’t involved in the negotiations. It would show some political courage if they at least ask: Is this the best deal the city can get?

▪ If the contract is approved, firefighters, who now pay 9 percent of their salary into their pensions, will pay the full 12 percent share starting in December 2015. That will save the city $4.7 million during the term of the contract, which will run until June 2018, and trim future pension costs.

Also lowering city costs, sick leave will be excluded in calculating overtime, and new employees no longer will be allowed to cash out unused sick time.

▪ Under the proposal, those savings will be far outweighed by salary increases – 5 percent retroactive to Dec. 27, 4 percent in December 2015 and 3 percent in December 2016. Higher ranks would get slightly less. The pay hikes, on top of a 5 percent raise in December 2012, will cost the city nearly $25 million over the four-year contract.

In 2013, city firefighters received an average of roughly $98,300 in base pay, overtime and retirement cash-outs, according to a Sacramento Bee review of data from the State Controller’s Office. The average payout was about $91,200 for city police officers, who, in their contract approved last June, get a 9 percent pay hike over three years.

▪ Unlike all other new city employees, new firefighters will receive retiree health benefits under the proposal. A 50-50 split to fund them in advance will cost the city about $315,000 a year.

▪ The union will meet with city officials this year to review bonuses, including those for obtaining degrees and licenses, and for hazardous material, boat or administrative duty. But there’s no promise to give up anything and no goal for any savings.

The contract will cost the city $22 million over four years, then $8.4 million a year after that.

While it may not be the “fiscal suicide pact” described by Eye on Sacramento, a local watchdog group, this contract will worsen the “fiscal cliff” when Measure U – the half-cent voter-approved sales tax that generates more than $30 million a year – ends in March 2019. With this contract, the city would face a projected general fund deficit approaching $50 million by 2019-20.

Brian Rice, president of the city firefighters union, says that it didn’t get everything it wanted and that the contract is fair for both sides. He also says that the union is a “complete team player,” pointing out that it bankrolled the Measure U campaign.

Now its contract makes it more likely that the council will ask voters to renew it, or even make it permanent, to avoid painful layoffs or service cuts. That’s very telling, too.