“If you say you can’t afford it, prove it. If you can’t prove it, pay up. We’re not being greedy here. It’s embarrassing how low we are paid compared to others. The average salary of a city employee in Redondo Beach is $47,000″ – President, Redondo Beach Fire Association, January 15, 2014, Daily Breeze article “Negotiations become hostile between Redondo Beach and employee union.”
Notwithstanding that this statement, “If you say you can’t afford it, prove it. If you can’t prove it, pay up,” sounds like something a gangster would say in a mafia movie, it’s this line, “We’re not being greedy here,” that merits close examination. To start, that would require us to verify this, “The average salary of a city employee in Redondo Beach is $47,000.”
It’s hard to imagine that a coastal city in California would be paying a mere $47,000 to their employees, but that is what the California State Controller’s data “Redondo Beach at a glance” shows: “$47,879 average wages for this city’s [Redondo Beach] employees,” and “$18,203 average retirement & health cost for this city’s employees.” Adding the cost for employer paid benefits, the average total compensation package totals $66,082. That still doesn’t seem like very much, right?
We’ve run this drill many times. The State Controller’s averages are not accurate because they include part-time employees, as well as employees who may have worked full time and received employer paid benefits, but only worked a portion of the year due to either being hired, retired, or transferred during the year under analysis. Once you take out the part-time recreation leaders, school crossing guards, lifeguards, library clerks, library pages, theater technicians and maintenance trainees, a very different picture emerges.
Here, available in detail on a downloadable spreadsheet, using State Controller Data, is what Redondo Beach’s full-time workers are really making:
Redondo Beach Average Salary and Benefits – Full-Time Workers by Dept., 2012
It is up to the reader to determine if an average pay plus employer paid benefits package of $132,005 per year for full-time Redondo Beach employees is appropriate or not. But if the conversation must turn on the topic of greed, “we’re not being greedy here,” perhaps the reader should also consider the data by department. Because the pay and benefit package for non-public safety employees working full-time for Redondo Beach is $96,162 per year. This compares to an estimated household income in Redondo Beach in 2011 of $97,547. If you assume that government workers who work in wealthy communities should make as much as the average household makes (where there are usually more than one wage earner), you might argue that the non-safety employees in Redondo Beach are appropriately compensated and don’t require any increase or decrease to their pay and benefits.
What about the pay for public safety employees, however? Why have the members of the city council, and their beleaguered city manager, gotten into a war of words with the President of the Redondo Beach Fire Association? Do the full-time firefighters of Redondo Beach, whose pay and employer paid benefits in 2012 averaged $220,990 each, make too much?
Because too often these negotiations rest on this question: “If you say you can’t afford it, prove it. If you can’t prove it, pay up,” rather than this one, “We’re not being greedy here.”
If you dig around just a little online, you will learn that the president of the Redondo Beach Fire Association is a “Fire Engineer.” According to the State Controller’s website, Redondo Beach had 13 fire engineers who worked a full year in that position in 2013. On average, these individuals made $75,684 in regular pay, collected $60,142 in overtime pay, plus $23,322 in “other pay.” They then had the city make a contribution to their pension plan – including paying a portion of their share of their pension costs – of $44,309, plus employer paid health insurance averaged another $14,061. In all, each full-time fire engineer working for the City of Redondo Beach made on average $217,517 during 2012.
If you read the Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Redondo Beach and the Redondo Beach Firefighers Association, that is, the labor agreement between the city and the union representing firefighters, you will be able to determine with relative certainty that during 2012 the average fire engineer made $217,517, on average, by working 162 shifts of 24 hours. Put another way, including overtime, they worked 3.1 shifts of 24 hours per week, and they were off the other four days.
Even Governor Jerry Brown has refused to exempt public safety employees from any proposed reforms to public sector compensation – in fact, his famous comments to that effect in the face of Meg Whitman’s capitulation to the public safety lobby during the early phases of the 2012 gubernatorial contest pretty much sealed his victory. To paraphrase Governor Brown, public safety compensation and benefits are one of the primary reasons for California’s municipal budget challenges.
Everyone agrees that police and firefighters deserve a premium for the risks they take to protect the public. But in California’s cities, their unions have marketed this risk, using compelling emotional arguments combined with formidable financial and political influence, in order to price their services well beyond what is affordable or appropriate. That is the unfortunate reality that far too few politicians have the courage to confront.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center