Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Fighting Fire with . . . Firefighters?

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You can’t blame the City of San José for suffering from something of an inferiority complex.

Sure, the town has a great NHL franchise, a cool tech museum, an airport that’s easily navigable, and host of New Economy businesses (Cisco, eBay, etc.) in its backyard. Still, most Californians don’t know it’s the most populous city in the Bay Area, much less the third largest in all of California (behind Los Angeles and San Diego). And it gets hardly as much notice (good and bad) as its neighbor to north, San Francisco.

But in this election, San José is worth a close look for two proposed reforms facing the city’s voters — Measure V and Measure W.  

V, if approved, would change the rule for police and firefighter arbitration, prohibiting the granting of retroactive benefits. W, if approved, would take current contribution requirements out of the city charter for new municipal employees.

Naturally, the reforms don’t sit well with the local firefighters’ union, which is still fuming (pardon the pun) over the firing of 49 firefighters this summer. Why the layoffs? City budget math.  San Jose’s employee retirement bill has tripled from just 6% of the city’s operating costs in 2000 to 17% this year — and an estimated 25% four years from now. San Jose’s general fund revenue grew 21% during the last decade, while the average cost per employee went up 87%. Retirement costs, $63 million in 2000, are expected to approach $177 million this fiscal year.

What does that do to the quality of public services in San José? Here’s what the city’s mayor, Chuck Reed, said after releasing an audit last week that showed San José is about $2 billion shy of meetings its $3.8 billion obligation to city retirees and employees. “The impact of rising pension costs has meant that San José can’t hire more firefighters, police officers, librarians, gang intervention workers. These out-of-control costs are why we can’t keep all of our libraries, community centers and swimming pools open.”

The bottom line for California: once a target deemed off-limits by politicians, firefighters suddenly find themselves on the defensive as cities across the Golden State address pension reform.

According to Calpensions, a website devote to all matters pension-related in the Golden State, proposals to cut public-employee pension costs are on the November ballot in at least eight California cities and one county.

So how will California’s firefighters’ unions try to stop the reform momentum? If today’s mail delivery is any indication — by fighting fire . . . with firefighters.

I received a slick color pamphlet urging a “”yes” vote on Palo Alto’s Measure R, which would require voter approval if the city decides to close fire stations or lay off firefighters.

On the cover of the brochure: a team of responders putting out a forest blaze. On the back, a lone fireman holding an infant in his arms. Subtle, no?

But still as effective?

Five years go, in defeating Gov. Schwarzenegger in a statewide special election, firefighters were a potent force — going as far as appearing in tv ads to take down Arnold (who, ironically, played a firefighter-turned-one-man-war-on-terror in Collateral Damage). That beatdown included the likes of Lou Paulson, president of the very political California Professional Firefighters, who raised a broom over his head at a Sacramento victory party on Election Night, leading the crowd in cants of “Sweep!”

But that was then, this is now. The economy is slow, unemployment is running in double digits, and voters are none too amused about the firefighter or the firefighter/paramedic in Carlsbad who made $80,000 in overtime last year,  the 21 firefighters in bankrupt Vallejo that earned more than $200,000 in salaries and overtime . . . . or, the average total compensation for San José firefighters: $180,000 a year.

No wonder the firefighters’ unions are feeling the heat.


Written by Bill Whalen

October 12, 2010 at 7:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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