The Price of Public Safety

July 15, 2010

There is nothing wrong with paying a premium to public safety personnel because of the risks they take. And while it is true there are other career choices that are riskier than public safety jobs, and while it is also true that on average, public safety personnel in California – according to CalPERS own actuarial data – have life expectancies that are virtually the same as the rest of us, it is still appropriate to pay public safety personnel a premium. After all, we never know when these people may stand on the front lines when something extraordinary happens – such as what occurred in New York City on Sept. 11th, 2001. People who work in public safety live with this knowledge every day, and they should be compensated appropriately for that.

The question is how much of a premium is appropriate, and how much of a premium can we afford as a society? Should a fire fighter make more than a medical doctor? Should a police officer make more than an engineer?

In order to get an idea of what public safety employees in California actually make, I obtained a roster that showed the total compensation paid to each employee of a Southern California city. Out of respect for the employees noted on this roster, I won’t identify the city, much less reveal the names of these individuals. And it is fair to state this city probably has a median income somewhat higher than the average for California. It would certainly be interesting as follow-up to obtain this sort of information for other California cities. But even taking all of these factors into consideration, the amounts these folks are making is startling – particularly when you adjust for realistic current year funding obligations for future retirement health and pension benefits.

In our example city, using actual data, the fire department has about 100 full time positions. The average annual compensation for these firefighters, if you include current benefits and current funding for future benefits, is $179K per year. But it doesn’t end there, because the pension funding percentage is calculated at 34% of earnings. As argued in “Maintaining Pension Solvency,” if you calculate pension funding requirements for a safety employee in California based on after-inflation returns of 3.0% instead of CalPERS official rate of 4.75%, you need to increase the pension withholding as a percent of payroll by 20%! Making this adjustment yields an average firefighter compensation of $202K per year. And even this figure probably fails to adequately account for current funding requirements for future supplemental retirement health benefits.

For our example city’s police department, using actual data, the police department has about 150 full time positions. The average annual compensation for these police officers, if you include current benefits and current funding for future benefits, is $174K per year. If you increase the pension withholding percentage by 20%, in order to reflect realistic rates of future pension fund returns, you will calculate an average police officer compensation of $197K per year – again, probably not including enough to fund future supplemental retirement health benefits.

It is important to emphasize these amounts – roughly $200K per year each – are not for senior management, or even senior employees. This is the average, taking into account entry level public safety employees as well as senior public safety employees.

It is interesting to note what the rest of the employees, the non-safety personnel, make in our sample city – making the same adjustments, their total compensation averages $118K per year. That is still quite a bit, considering many of these jobs are relatively unskilled. To put this in perspective, the average private sector worker in California averages $40K per year in compensation – one third what the non-safety workers average in our sample city.

Should a non-safety local public employee workforce, one including a large percentage of relatively unskilled positions, have an average compensation per employee of $118K per year? Should safety employees make, on average, $200K per year? Can we afford this?

What is clear over the past several years is that as pay stagnated in the private sector, public sector employees continued to receive regular cost-of-living increases. Over the past 10-15 years, public employees also received dramatic increases to their retirement benefits. And as housing prices soared, millions of Californians borrowed against their home equity, and many of them are now paying dearly for that mistake. There are undoubtedly many public sector employees who were caught up in the borrowing frenzy, and are now on the edge financially – but it is fair to wonder why they should be immune from the same cutbacks that have left so many people in the private sector unemployed, or under-employed, or compensated at rates that are a fraction of what they were during the bubble booms.

It is also fair to wonder why public sector employees should not be obligated to plan and prepare and save, if they want a comfortable retirement. For non-safety personnel in public service, it is fair to wonder – since they now make more, not less, than private sector workers for similar work requiring similar skills – why in their retirement they shouldn’t simply collect social security and medicare like the rest of us. And even if public safety employees should collect something better than social security in recognition of their role as first responders, it is fair to wonder why their retirement pensions should be literally five times more than the social security payments due retired private sector workers with similar salary histories. As documented in “Funding Social Security vs. Public Sector Pensions,” the fiscal crisis facing social security is trivial and easily solved, whereas the fiscal crisis facing public sector pensions is catastrophic and can only be solved either through massive benefit cuts or crippling new taxes.

It is difficult to dispute the contention that the price of public safety cannot be too high. It is difficult to overstate the appreciation anyone should feel for people who stand between us and chaos – the people who protect us, the people who rescue us, the people who save our property. But those people themselves should understand the price we’re currently paying is elevated because of collective bargaining and overwhelming political clout, and is dangerously out of touch with market realities. It would be helpful for everyone to consider the choices involved – cuts to pay and benefits vs. cuts to services, cuts to pay and benefits vs. crippling taxes and economic decline, cuts to pay and benefits vs. investments to advance our technology, our infrastructure, and our military security. All of these elements must be balanced, yet are currently grossly out of balance, because in one way or another, all of them may quite legitimately be described as issues of safety and security for California and the nation.