In December 2013, the Davis City Council unanimously voted to impose the last, best and final offer on the Davis firefighters. That ended about a year and a half of turmoil in the city, but the imposed contract was only a one-year deal and, as of now, the Davis firefighters are technically speaking back, on the clock – except for one big change, now the status quo is the imposed contract rather than the more lucrative 2009 MOU.
We have heard a lot of talk about the low morale of the department, but we also need to remember that this is the best compensated bargaining unit in the city from top to bottom. The typical firefighter, when overtime is counted in, receives over six figures in salary, and upwards of $150,000 in total compensation.
An editorial in this morning’s Sacramento Bee, “Is This Fire Contract the Best City Can Do?” is a reminder that the city of Davis is not alone in having to deal with these issues.
As the Bee rightly notes, “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.”
Whenever labor or contractual issues come up, firefighters and their union emphasize the importance of their work. No one disputes that – no one disputes that firefighters, like police officers, often put their lives on the line and that, while the firefighters in particular are well-compensated for their jobs, there really is no amount of money that mitigates that risk.
Still there are some telling things in the Bee editorial that we need to highlight as we look ahead here in Davis.
Sacramento 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. “
Moreover, the Bee notes, it is “even more revealing” that the city manager “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.”
Writes the Bee, “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?” the Bee argues.
However, there are offsets to the contract.
For instance, “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.”
The city was also able to get the union to exclude sick leave in calculating overtime and new employees will no longer be able to cash out unused sick time.
However, “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.”
The Bee notes that Sacramento firefighters receive nearly 25% more than Davis firefighters even before this 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.”
The Bee adds, “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 contract will cost the city $22 million over four years, then $8.4 million a year after that.
The Bee editorial board writes, “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.”
The Bee adds, “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. “
The Bee concludes, “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.”
Davis residents should pay close attention to what just happened in Sacramento. The city is not suddenly flush in money. They just passed a half-cent voter approved sales tax, they have a projected general fund deficit, and the Sacramento City Council bowed down to the public safety unions.
The handwriting is on the wall. We will see if our council can do better than Sacramento’s.
—David M. Greenwald reporting