What started in Stanton, California as an anomaly is spreading quickly across North Orange County – the push to create local sales taxes in order to pay off the rising pay and benefits of public employees.
Stanton voters passed a one-percent sales tax in 2014, giving residents in one of OC’s poorest cities the county’s highest sales tax. But in the last several days, the enthusiasm for this most regressive of taxes has spread to Westminster, Fountain Valley and La Palma, and always for the same reason: public employee compensation.
Stanton councilmember David Shawver is elated, perhaps because he’s no longer alone. “The 2014 sales-tax increase saved the city of Stanton’s life,” Shawver told the Orange County Register last week. “The tax will be a really big thing for Westminster. They will see a regeneration of their community.”
In those cities, as in Stanton, the same dire warnings are broadcast from City Hall: The end is near. We’ve cut every other city service imaginable, and if you don’t pay more in sales taxes now, you’ll lose vital public-safety services – the police and firefighters who represent the thin line between civilization and Darwinian struggle.
When asked about this problem, many city officials respond that for all their apparent authority, they’re really impotent. They’re trapped by the rising pay and benefits of government workers, especially those who are unionized, and especially those in unions of police and firefighters.
A Stanton official told me there’s no way to change the cost of sheriff’s deputies and firefighters. The county sets the rate – averaging around $236,000 per year for firefighters and $189,000 for deputies. Stanton just pays.
“There’s absolutely nothing we can do about that,” the official said.
That’s absolutely wrong. The City of Stanton and its neighbors have an amazing opportunity in the midst of their crisis. And the U.S. military provides part of the answer.
For years, the U.S. has run on the assumption that a relatively small number of career professionals can mass-produce the world’s most powerful soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. In 16 weeks or less, for example, the Army outfits, trains and deploys men and women around the world. It arms them with life-saving and death-dealing equipment and techniques. It counts on them to carry out their missions in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Bravery, loyalty and resilience are standard.
In exchange for this exceptional demand, we nevertheless pay our service people very little – about $1500 per month. After four years, most enlistees are discharged and pursue other careers. The military expects that only a few will stay on to rise through the ranks of officers and noncommissioned officers who oversee the recruitment, training, support and management of new trainees. Their leadership is invaluable, but the military may at its discretion decide to reduce benefits – even retroactively – or terminate employment.
The Department of Defense isn’t perfect. The scandal over veterans’ health care, the bloat, the crony-capitalist contracts and the politicians’ ham-fisted use of force are real. But if we can train 18-year-olds to handle lethal force and million-dollar equipment in a combat zone, we can train young people to put out fires – or, as is more likely in Orange County, to respond to medical emergencies.
We could pay these firefighters well, better than their military counterparts. And at the end of four years, we could thank them for their service and let them pursue their bliss – to sign on as firefighters in wealthier cities still wedded to the old model. Or they could move on to work or college. It would be cheaper to spend more – to pay for their health care and offer tuition support for several years, for instance – than to turn them into careerists.
Instead, for decades, we’ve chosen to hire high school graduates who win the firefighting lottery. Thousands apply for just a few openings anywhere. The reason for the long lines: The winners will work a few days per week in exchange for about $236,000 per year, early retirement and annual pensions of about 90 percent of their highest annual pay.
You’d have to be a millionaire to clock that kind of income in retirement. But our cities and counties hand it out as standard procedure.
Our elected officials can rarely see a way out.
That’s why Stanton – and Westminster, La Habra, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Placentia and hundreds of other California cities – are so deeply troubled. For decades, police and firefighters have backed (with their time and money) political candidates who deliver on the promise to sign off on higher pay and benefits. The sweetheart deals have driven countless Orange County cities toward insolvency.
Stanton can survive if it innovates. And, sure, it may seem a long-shot to expect that the city councilmembers elected to represent government employees will have the courage to represent the people instead. But there’s an old saying about necessity as the mother of invention – or as they say in bureaucratic circles, urgency functioning as the distaff progenitor of creativity.
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Will Swaim is the VP of Communications at the California Policy Center.