Barstow Bucks Frugal Trend By Upping Firefighters’ Pay

(December 7)  BARSTOW—While most municipalities in San Bernardino County and California are struggling with the financial challenges inherent in the salary and benefit costs for their firefighters, the city of Barstow is one of the state’s few cities where until now fire department pay has not been a city treasury-breaking issue. That could change soon, though.
Next month, Barstow will join the ranks of cities paying the going rate, that is, union-scale wages to its firefighting staff, such that the cost of employing a single firefighter full time with overtime, including salary and benefits, will run the city close to $130,000 per year, on average.
Traditionally, the Barstow Fire Protection District was an independent agency dedicated to providing fire protection within its jurisdiction and was unaffiliated with any other agency or governmental entity. As such, the district was a self-sustaining one that had to live within the means available to it. This translated into what were more modest salaries and benefit packages for its employees than were available in larger districts and even small or smaller municipal departments.
In a split vote taken at a special joint meeting in March 2010, Barstow’s city council and the separate fire protection district board voted to merge the district with the city. In this way, the city took on responsibility for the fire district’s entire jurisdiction, which included everything within the Barstow City Limits as well as some areas outside the city. The board for the district, which voted 4-1 in favor of the move with board member Paul Courtney opposed, was somewhat more enthusiastic about the takeover than was the city council, which voted in favor of the merger 3-1, with councilman Tim Saenz abstaining and councilman Tim Silva opposed.
Representations made to justify having the city absorb the department were that the takeover would ensure local control of the department, better service and save money.
It does not appear that this last rationale was fulfilled.
In 2011, the fire district became a part of the city. Fire department employees, who were still paid at the rates they received previously, overnight became municipal employees.
Internally, city staff knew the firefighters were working for compensation that was somewhat less than the standard paid to firefighters elsewhere. When the city undertook a routine study of the city’s classification of its employees and their compensation which showed fire personnel were being paid less than other city employees, the issue became a public one. The firefighters, who had previously been willing to work for the pay provided by the district, were beset with a newfound sense of deprivation upon learning that they were in many cases making less money than their municipal colleagues, including some members of the clerical and maintenance divisions.
According to the classification and compensation study, the results of which were accepted by the city council in October, beginning firefighters received 42 percent less pay than beginning police officers.
According to the report, that discrepancy “occurs through the rank of fire captain, with the majority of Barstow’s employees being compensated at a higher rate than fire captain.”
The Barstow Professional Firefighters Association, the union representing the firefighters, began pressuring city manager Curt Mitchell and members of the council, calling for pay and benefit increases that would put the fire department personnel on a par with those working in other cities and fire districts around the county.
Despite the pronounced intent of the city council in voting for the takeover in 2010 that the move would reduce costs, the council in October agreed to a negotiated settlement that goes into effect on January 1, 2013 that will increase the pay of an entry level firefighter before overtime from $4,000 per month or $48,000 per year to a minimum of $4,500 monthly or $54,000 per year. The contract with the firefighters calls for them to make a nine percent contribution to their retirement fund.  All higher ranking members of the department – firefighter paramedics, field training officers, fire inspectors, battalion chiefs, fire engineers, fire captains, and fire captain specialists – make even more money.
The increase in the fire department employees’ pay will also increase the amount of the pensions they will receive, since public safety retirees are paid a percentage – usually three percent – of their highest yearly salary and add-ons times the number of years they have been employed. In this way, a public safety employee who remains with a city for 33 years will be eligible for a pension of 99 percent of his or her highest salary for the rest of his or her life.
The effort to adjust the firefighters’ level of pay upward occurred during the third year of a four-year-long contraction of the national, state and local economy. The adjustment was also made as other municipal entities which are themselves struggling with dwindling revenue and hefty contractual commitments to their employees are seeking concessions from those employees’ bargaining units on salary levels and benefit packages.
The Barstow City Council had the option of directing Mitchell to leave the existing pay scale for the city’s recently-acquired firefighter force in place and use that scale as a standard with which to ask the city’s other employee bargaining groups to make salary and benefit concessions to bring them in line with the firefighters and thereby reduce that portion of the city’s budget which is devoted to employee payroll and benefits.
In Barstow, as in nearly all other cities in San Bernardino County and the state of California, employee salaries, overtime and benefits represent the major cost to taxpayers in maintaining municipal government.
A number of cities are in an extremely delicate position vis-à-vis employee costs. At the county seat in San Bernardino, for example, city officials have filed for bankruptcy and are on the verge of facing lawsuits over the city’s inability or unwillingness to make further contributions to the city’s employees’ pension fund, the California Public Employees Retirement System. The outcome of that refusal to make those payments is unknown at this time, with the possibility that the bankruptcy court will order San Bernardino to continue to make the payments. It is also possible that the pension fund board will pursue legal action against San Bernardino. It is also possible that the retirement system will cease making pension payments to San Bernardino’s retirees altogether or sharply reduce those pensions.
While San Bernardino city employee union officials have blamed San Bernardino elected officials and city management for the situation that city finds itself in, others fault the city’s employee unions and the employees themselves for their intensive lobbying and political efforts that resulted in the election of city leaders who continually provided city employees with generous salaries and benefits that represented costs far beyond the city’s financial means.

Leave a Reply