Vanguard Analysis: 30% Total Compensation Gap Problematic For Fire Merger

Friends of Davis FireWhen Mayor Dan Wolk at last week’s city council meeting called for a “check-in to see what’s happening on the merger front,” he was re-opening a can of worms on the firefighter issue.

The city and university had moved down the road to merger once before, only to be stopped cold by the compensation gap between the City of Davis and UC Davis fire departments.

The City and UC Davis had explored a merger back in 2010, however, that process was paused in January 2012. Then UC Davis Vice Chancellor John Meyer wrote to then-City Manager Steve Pinkerton, “Both of our agencies remain committed to a unified fire department to serve our shared community. However, I believe that we have reached a point of limited progress and that, for a variety of reasons, most particularly the City’s pending negotiations with its firefighters, we should pause this process as described below and then reconvene in the 2012-13 fiscal year.”

This issue of the compensation gap was critical to that decision.

“I am deeply concerned about the significant compensation disparity highlighted in the CityGate report,” Vice Chancellor Meyer wrote. “The report suggests that UC Davis will increase its compensation in support of consolidation efforts. I believe such action would not be sustainable by UC Davis and should not be assumed in future planning.”

A records request reveals to the Vanguard that the gap remains sizable – about 30 percent across the board.


Recall that for Davis firefighters, almost all are Firefighter II or higher. That represents a $40,000-plus gap or about 31 percent.

As the Vanguard has reported numerous times in the past, Davis firefighters not only are the highest paid in the city, they are some of  the highest paid among comparable cities.

In 2013, another Vanguard analysis found that “Davis Firefighters Near Top in Compensation, Police Near Bottom.” The analysis found that Davis firefighters at the time made 5.1 percent above mean on salary, and 7.4 percent above mean on total compensation. Only the city of Fairfield, among comparable cities, paid more in total compensation for fire (and only by a narrow margin).

Meanwhile, UC Davis ranked in 2013 only slightly below the mean in both salary and total compensation.

Where does this analysis leave us? As we reported last week, while some have suggested to the Vanguard that the compensation gap would again make a full merger impractical, others believe it could be dealt with by freezing City of Davis fire compensation until the gap dissipates.

The Vanguard has learned that, behind the scenes, Davis Professional Firefighters Association President Bobby Weist is pushing for the full merger as a means to reassert control over the process. The city is looking to remodel the central fire station and potentially move the leadership downtown when that remodel is completed.

There is additional thinking that the possible failure of a merger could lead to a reassessment of the entire shared management arrangement. While many of the reforms passed in 2013 have been controversial, the shared management agreement and the managing of the two departments under UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht has been the focal point of dissension from union leadership.

In 2013, when the city was implementing fire reforms, the union fought hard against both shared management with the university as well as a reduction in staffing. The council, while unanimously approving the imposition of last, best and final offer, was split on these other two issues, with 3-2 votes in favor (Brett Lee and Rochelle Swanson were joined by then-Mayor Joe Krovoza) while Dan Wolk and Lucas Frerichs were in strong opposition (although Dan Wolk flipped to opposition following a letter from a group of elected officials opposing shared management that included his mother, Senator Lois Wolk).

In November 2013, Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Supervisors Don Saylor and Jim Provenza and former Supervisor Helen Thomson wrote a letter to the Davis City Council opposing the agreement for shared management.

The letter argued, “We believe that governance of public safety is and must remain a core function of the elected City Council of Davis. Community oversight and accountability is an important element of municipal services.”

They wrote, “We urge the Davis City Council to take another look at the serious long-range consequences of this proposal before contracting out any of these core municipal functions. There is a key difference between sharing or coordinating services and merging governance with the constitutionally separate and unelected Regents and Chancellor.”

“This proposed action would place a well-established and effective municipal service within an entity whose primary mission is higher education and research, not public safety,” the letter continued. “This could easily result in a lessening of service and response for the residents of the Davis community and the surrounding areas historically served by the Davis Fire Department. We deeply appreciate the presence of the UC Davis campus and respect the leadership of the campus. Unified operations and efficiencies are appropriate considerations, but should not come with loss of community accountability.”

Throughout 2014, there were signs of trouble ahead. Union president Bobby Weist had attempted to enlist the statewide union to aid their cause, going so far as to propose legislation to prohibit such a merger.

When the city council hired Dirk Brazil in late 2014, it was unclear which direction the city would go.

However, data emerging in 2014 showed that the reforms, rather than making residents less safe, have actually greatly improved safety in the city. From September 2012 until August 2013, in a typical month Station 32 (west Davis) and Station 33 (south Davis, covering the eastern and southern portions of the city) had essentially been uncovered between 20 and 40 times per month.

That means that areas of west and east Davis, if they had an emergency, were looking at far longer before an engine that had been moved to the central fire station on Fifth and E Street could travel back into the areas on the eastern and western portions of the town.

In critical situations people might have to wait three, four, or five extra minutes. This wasn’t just a few times per month, this was daily for long periods of time during the day.

With the changes, the number of “move and cover assignments” has fallen to, in most cases, less than five times a month in total.

The question remains, with full merger not being a realistic option, where does this head? The clock is moving in one respect – if the council fails to make changes by the end of June, the agreement with UC Davis will automatically renew through the end of 2017. Sources the Vanguard spoke with are downplaying the chance for any type of real reversal, citing a lack of three votes as well as electoral consideration.

However, it is clear that there is maneuvering behind the scenes to see if any traction can be reached on this.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    data emerging in 2014 showed that the reforms, rather than making residents less safe, have actually greatly improved safety in the city. From September 2012 until August 2013, in a typical month Station 32 (west Davis) and Station 33 (south Davis, covering the eastern and southern portions of the city) had essentially been uncovered between 20 and 40 times per month.”

    We have many controversial issues in the city. This should not be one of them. The letter against the joint operations/merger was written prior to the acquisition of safety data. The data are now clear regarding the increased safety of the current model. This is a safety issue. It should be evidence based rather than politically driven. I sincerely hope our city manager and city council will stand by this principle of evidence based governance.


  2. Barack Palin

    We know the system is now working, the problem is going to be when, because you know it’s coming, the UCD firefighters start crying that they’re underpaid in comparison to our overpaid city firefighters.  I don’t know the solution but I do know we as a city can’t put anymore revenue towards firefighters.

    1. Matt Williams

      Tia and BP, there are some interesting parallels between the political alliance formed during the joint operations Fire decision and the political alliance formed during Measure P water rates ballot. At the core of each of those fights was a dedicated group, the firefighters union in the one case and the Harrington no-growth community in the other case.

      In forming his successful coalition Harrington successfully leveraged community anger/fear … one part of his alliance (see John Munn) was angry about the level of “taxation” in Davis and saw the water rates as a tax, another part of his alliance felt the rates were unfair to renters (see Bob Dunning), and the final part of his alliance found the rates to be confusing. Harrington did a masterful job of linking confusion to fear … If you don’t understand something, you should fear it.

      Like Harrington’s core group, Bobby Weist’s core group, the members of his union, is small.  What he is trying to do is draw others into an alliance with his core group.   The message of the letter against the joint operations/merger was all about uncertainty and fear.  The authors clearly pointed out what they saw as UCD’s uncertain commitment to the values of the City of Davis.  The clear implication was that the safety of each and every Davis resident was at risk if they were unfortunate enough to experience a fire. It was the classic FUD marketing message … Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt are powerful motivators.

      Where Weist failed, when Harrington succeeded, was that his coalition didn’t have a third leg.  The self interest of his core together with the letter writers only gave his stool two legs.  That hasn’t changed.  There doesn’t seem to be a third leg of support for his stool.  If anything, the sharp focus that the residents of Davis have had on fiscal responsibility, makes the chances of a third stool leg even more remote.

      Further, the open, transparent performance reporting by Fire Chief Trauernicht since the joint management began has substantially reduced the amount of uncertainty and fear about fire safety in Davis.  The reports on response time and the sharp reduction of incidents where potions of the City are “uncovered” clearly show that since the joint operations began, there are better answers to the “What’s In It For Me?” questions that residents can’t help but having.

      So, the time has come for the residents of Davis to be proactive and speak up about how they feel about their fire safety.  If you feel safer under the joint management structure, take a moment and send Mayor Wolk and City Manager Brazil and Council Member Frerichs an e-mail stating your support for joint management.  Feel free to copy your e-mail to the three other Council members, Swanson, Lee and Davis.  Congratulate them on their original support for joint management.

      Finally, send one more e-mail to Jeff Miller and the members of the Finance and Budget Commission stating your support for the fiscal savings that joint management has delivered.  Improved safety while spending less of the taxpayers money is a result we should all support.

      The e-mail addresses are



      Chairperson Jeff Miller and the members of the FBC can be reached at

  3. SODA

    What is the legality or practicality of merging and freezing city firefighter salaries? With the large number of applicants for open positions, might that solve several issues?

    Why would a merger solidify Bobby Weist’s control, am not following?

    1. hpierce

      Merging, freezing City FF compensation are two different (albeit linked) issues, legally…

      Merging is a shared perogative of the City and UCD.  A legal challenge might be made, but highly questionable as to whether such a challenge would succeed.

      Freezing City FF compensation appears to be simple.  And legal.  If the FF’s come to the negotiation table, they could walk away with concessions they may make on compensation, no change in compensation, or increases in compensation… all perfectly legal.  If they do not “come to the table”, the default is ‘frozen’ compensation.  Also perfectly legal.

      If the merger is done, normal attrition would eventually decrease the “disparity”, in aggregate, as new hires are brought on.  Perhaps at the UCD compensation levels.

      1. Matt Williams

        Thank you for sharing those thoughts hpierce.  They are definitely food for thought.

        Freezing the City firefighter pay until it came into parity with the UCD firefighter pay would also accomplish another “fairness” objective, getting the pay of all our Public Safety employees (Police and Fire) closer in alignment.

        1. Barack Palin

          Freezing the City firefighter pay until it came into parity with the UCD firefighter pay would also accomplish another “fairness” objective

          Only if the UCD firefighter pay raises aren’t sped up to try and get it in align with the DFD.

        2. Matt Williams

          I sincerely doubt that UCD would speed up their firefighter pay to align with the “top of the market” pay that City of Davis firefighters get.  UCD would have no incentive to do that, since it would be their own payroll expense that they would be inflating.  UCD is very actively trying to improve its bottom-line, not make it worse.

        1. hpierce

          I don’t know the status of the negotiations, if any… absent negotiations, it is my understanding that all compensation is, indeed, “frozen”… it will take a new MOU (or at least attempts to negotiate one) to reduce or increase compensation levels for Davis FF’s, as I understand it…

  4. Frankly

    Davis firefighters making the top in an industry that is really more a cartel with a standard of over-paying cartel members.

    The first step for fixing the problem is to break the cartel.

  5. Matt Williams

    One huge issue that David did not cover in his article is pension and OPEB.

    Public commenters have tried to bring up to the previous Council, the issue of how the transfer of any pension and OPEB liabilities would be handled.  According to those commenters, the University is in worse shape than the City.  They report that systemwide, UCD has funded essential nothing against its $14 billion in unfunded OPEB benefits.

    As the result, the City and UCD would need to wrestle with the fiscal reality that any incoming Fire Personnel would be coming into the employment of the city with no “prefunded account” related to their future, post employment healthcare benefits package.

    A reasonable approximation of the present value of this “benefits component” is at least $250,000 per employee.   Bringing on board 10 new employees would be equivalent of accepting a new $2.5 million liability on the day of hire.  The City would be looking for a lump sum payment from UCD of that 2.5 million dollars.  I can’t see UCD going for that.

    1. Sam

      CALPERS and the UC pension system already have a reciprocity agreement so the pensions would not be a problem. They would just have to work out how they are going to handle the OPEB benefits. They would not even need to do a lump sum payment since the City has barley funded their OPEB either and are contributing over time.

      Dealing with people doing the same work for drastically different pay is a much bigger issue.

      Why don’t we just contract out ALL fire services to the UC and have the City save a few million dollars a year?

      1. South of Davis

        Sam wrote:

        > Why don’t we just contract out ALL fire services to the

        > UC and have the City save a few million dollars a year?

        Because no one gives more money to elected officials in California than public employee unions, police unions and firefighter unions…

    2. South of Davis

      Matt wrote:

      > A reasonable approximation of the present value of this “benefits component”

      > is at least $250,000 per employee.

      The number is much different for employees of different ages, but it is WAY WAY WAY more than $250K per employee (get on the phone and see if you can pay anyone $250K and get a $100K pension and healthcare for life starting at 50).

      I just looked to see if I could get what Davis healthcare costs are for retired firefighters but it said it was “not provided” (it did say that former Davis firefighter Rose Conroy’s pension is $130K)

      As I have mentioned I have many firefighter friends (non that work for Davis) and all of them have family healthcare (including dental and vision) that would cost at least $2K/month.  All of them keep this amazing health care in to retirement (and even if they die young their spouse gets it for life and all their kids get it until they turn 26).

      I don’t want to sound like I am “name calling” but looking at actual numbers from (just about) every public pension in America they have been paying current retired people with the money from the current employees just like a typical Ponzi scheme.  The only way a Ponzi works is that it has to keep growing.

      Davis had ~3,500 people in 1950 and it more than doubled by 1960, then it more than doubled again by 1970 and it doubled yet again by 1990.  Today (25 years later) we are only about half way to another doubling (about 50% more people than 1990).

      Just like a Ponzi scheme will run out of money when the number of new investors stops doubling the city pension funds will run out of money soon after the number of people paying in stops doubling.

      This is not a “political” problem, it is a “math” problem:



      1. hpierce

        Fact check(s)… City does not provide vision care benefit… either during employment or as retirees… employees can choose vision, @ group rates, via the City (but City contributes nothing)… City does not contribute to retiree dental… employees/retirees are allowed to get the group rates… at their own expense, with no contributions from City… please try to be informed/honest… to not do so pulls into question other valid points you may make…

        And, for retirees, the City only pays “supplement to Medicare” coverage once a retiree is eligible for Medicare.  The truth will set you free, or at least help let you make valid/cogent arguments…

        1. South of Davis

          hpierce wrote

          > Fact check(s)… City does not provide vision care benefit…

          I did not say the city of Davis provides vision care, sorry but it looks like the “e” did not make it when I wrote “non work in Davis” I meant to wrote “none work in Davis”.  Many northern California firefighters “do” have vision coverage (my best friend works for a fire department in another Northern California city and under their vision plan he gets a free pair of prescription glasses each year and in addition to a half dozen prescription safety glasses in the garage he has at least a dozen Oakley prescription sunglasses in the hip style of the year for much of the past 20 years).

          > And, for retirees, the City only pays “supplement to Medicare”

          > coverage once a retiree is eligible for Medicare.

          Since most public safety employees can “retire” at 50 I would not say “only” when talking about paying thousands “per person” for over a decade for some people (any idea what the cost to the city per person per year is for retirees you are too young to get Medicare)?

          > The truth will set you free

          What (specifically) did I say that was not truthful?

        2. hpierce

          Ok, errors of ‘omission’… although the topic was FF’s, I read you comments as applying to all Davis employees/retirees… my ‘bad’…  your omission… implying (by a plain reading) that FF’s have full medical costs paid by the City “even after” they qualify for Medicare… some FF’s file for Medicare years after they ‘retire’, so that point is noted, and well-taken… for those intervening years…

          I never said, nor did I mean to imply, that you were ‘untruthful’… however, by your own admission as to ‘assumptions’, you were not fully accurate.

          The issues you cite are valid, and worthy of disussion, as you have clarified them… some here keep saying that the City pays ~ $20k per year for retiree medical from retirement to age 99+ … THAT simply is not true.

          I just seek to make sure that arguments are based on facts… as do some others…

        1. hpierce

          I do not acknowledge the $200k number except, perhaps, for the highest compensated employees… for them it may be low for the highest, but certainly does not represent the lower 3/4’ers of City employees (or more) in general… it may well apply to FF’s in the City… just don’t know…

    3. hpierce

      All good things to consider… on both the UCD and City sides of the ledger… ‘measure twice, cut once’ is darn good advice.  Might even need to measure additional times, as information emerges…

      1. Matt Williams

        hpierce said . . . “Might even need to measure additional times, as information emerges…”


        That would have been a good idea when the Council was considering the Cannery CFD,

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