San Ramon Fire Protection District Pay and Governance Exemplifies Union Power

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
July 7, 2015

San Ramon Fire Protection District Pay and Governance Exemplifies Union Power

In a democracy, the assumption is that civilians exercise the ultimate authority over their government. The citizens elect representatives who will act in the public interest. But what happens when government agencies are disbursed over thousands of jurisdictions, and the people who run these local agencies are virtually unknown?

Even citizens who follow politics and vote diligently are challenged to make an informed selection when considering the many candidates vying for obscure boards and commissions and special district elected positions. In some cases they will know about a particular obscure race, but in most cases they will not. So they either don’t select a candidate, or select a candidate almost randomly based on the brief ballot description, “small business owner,” “retired teacher,” whatever.

Only one group of voters consistently makes informed choices in these elections to supposedly minor elected positions. The people who these elected officials are going to manage and negotiate with over pay, benefits, and work rules.

The problem with dismissing these bottom-of-the-ballot elections as inconsequential, of course, is that these “minor elected positions,” in aggregate, represent thousands of agencies in California, managed by multiple thousands of elected officials, spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. And the problem is compounded because that small minority of voters who really care about the outcome of these elections, the public employees these politicians are going to manage, are represented by powerful, taxpayer funded, politically sophisticated labor unions.

Government unions have little in common with private sector unions, who cannot elect their own bosses and who have to negotiate in good faith with business owners who will go out of business if they are too generous with pay and benefits. Government unions, on the other hand, promote carefully selected candidates to their members, and relentlessly fight to elect them. Against this machine is virtually nothing comparable. Local activists and reformers, along with their donors, are volunteers who come and go, their efforts rising and falling with the urgency of the issues. That is how it should be in a democracy. But not the government unions. They are perennial powerhouses, employing full time professionals, using taxpayer funds, always active, playing the long game.

In California, an example of government employees receiving pay and benefits exceeding any reasonable market norm would be urban firefighters. Unlike police departments which sometimes struggle to find qualified recruits, California’s fire departments typically have hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants every time there is an open position. Yet firefighters consistently are the highest paid among public safety employees in California. This would be inexplicable, except for the power of the firefighters’ unions.

The San Ramon Fire Protection District is managed by a five member elected board. Last November two board seats were up for election. And as reported in the San Jose Mercury on November 4, 2015, “Union-supported candidates Donald Parker and Chris Campbell cruised to victory against fiscal reformer Dale Price and incumbent Glenn Umont in the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District race.”

If you view the current members of the San Ramon Fire Protection District Board, you will see that these two union backed candidates join another union backed director, Gordon Dakin, to create a 3-2 majority on the board. When Dakin won his election in 2012, the Contra Costa Times reported “Dakin, an Alameda County fire captain, is the vote leader capturing 51 percent of the vote. His campaign had the backing of the San Ramon Valley Firefighters Association International Association of Firefighters Local 3546.”

This may be democracy, but it isn’t representative. Government unions elect the people they negotiate with. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, pay and benefits rise well beyond what is necessary to attract and retain qualified people. The average full time firefighter working for the San Ramon Fire Protection District in 2013 – the most recent year for which data is available – made $283,457 per year. Including overtime, and taking into account vacation benefits but not sick time, veteran full-time firefighters worked 2.7 days per week (24 hour shifts) to make this much money.

Donald Parker, one of the recently elected directors, is a retired firefighter who in 2013 collected two pensions, $110,587 from the Oakland Fire and Police Retirement System, and another $74,069 from CalPERS for his service as a firefighter with Vallejo (these figures do not include other retirement benefits, which the pensions systems did not disclose). Chris Campbell, according to the Contra Costa Times, is a firefighter for the City of San Francisco.

According to their website, the San Ramon Fire Protection District had revenue in FY 2012 of $52.9 million. According to Wikipedia, their budget in 2013 was $53.0 million. According to the State Controller, they spent $40.7 million on pay and benefits in 2013, 77% of their total budget. They spent $12.5 million on employer payments for pensions, that is, 24% of their entire budget went to pay for pensions. And without additional reforms, that percentage will rise in the coming years.

Those of us who look at these statistics over and over again get sensitized to the figures. Step back. Think about this:

44 of these full-time firefighters, 37 percent of them, made over $300,000 in total compensation in 2013.

75 of these full-time firefighters, 63 percent of them, made over $200,000 in total compensation in 2013 (but less than $300K).

1 of these full-time firefighters, ONE OF THEM, made less than $200,000 in total compensation in 2013 – that person made $179,025.

This cannot be financially sustained. Rates of pay and benefits this high have a real cost in terms of higher taxes and reduced services. And there is currently no viable political coalition, anywhere, capable of standing up to these unions. Businesses and wealthy people get out of the way. They’d rather stay on the good side of the local governments, who approve their permits and inspect their projects, and these local governments are run by unions.

To summarize – because of the power of local government unions, barring fundamental legislative or judicial reforms, the political battle is lost. With rare and fleeting exceptions, California’s cities and counties and special districts will continue to be run by union backed elected officials, and they will continue to allocate every budget dollar they possibly can to pay unionized public employees. The San Ramon Fire Protection District is a case in point. And it is the norm.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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