Once upon a time, workers applying for government jobs knew that while the pay was less than the private sector, the benefits, from health insurance to time off and guaranteed pensions, more than made up for it. Over time, however, the line of demarcation between relatively low income and great benefits began to diminish. Now public employees seem to get a sweet deal both with pay and benefits. There has been some reform on the state and county level to try and scale back unreasonable retirement benefits, a big bone of contention for more conservative-leaning watchdogs, accusing certain public employees of taking advantage of the system. While the fight is ongoing over what private employees feel public employees should earn versus what public employees feel they deserve, there seems to be a bit of a glitch in the system about pay for firefighters and police. With regard to overtime specifically, the issue of recently cutting $1 million in the overtime budget for Oxnard firefighters is coming to a head.
Before discussing this most recent issue, it’s important to compare the status quo of qualifying overtime as regular income to other fire departments. It’s unclear when the practice began, but it’s something most people are used to and that firefighters and police officers have become rather notorious for. When looking at the private sector, overtime is something management has to control or it can change a profit-turning business into one that is no longer in business. But for firefighters and law enforcement, it appears to be the norm.
The 2014 California Firefighter Total Compensation Survey, prepared by CalHR’s Office of Financial Management and Economic Research, May 30, 2014, compared 18 cities (including Oxnard), two counties (including Ventura County) and CAL FIRE (state-level firefighters) total monthly compensation, including base salary, planned overtime, employer paid benefits, and sick, vacation and holiday time. The survey showed that Ventura County ranked fifth among the highest paid at $16,169 monthly, amounting to $194,028 per year, with Santa Monica the highest at $18,403. The lowest was CAL FIRE at $11,051 while Oxnard ranked in the lower half at 14th place with $12,809. Comparing monthly planned overtime costs, CAL FIRE is the highest at $1,825, followed by Ontario at $1,417. Ventura County ranked fourth at $678 and Oxnard was eighth at $487. This survey reveals that Oxnard clearly isn’t the worst, but also, being the worst in overtime pay doesn’t mean good overall pay. But we digress. While the issue at hand is much simpler than all of this, we should also take a look at what kind of calls Oxnard firefighters take.
In Oxnard for 2014, of the 15,860 calls for service, 350 were actually fires, or 2 percent of the total. The majority of the calls — 10,867 — were rescue, emergency medical responses (ambulance, EMS, rescue). With this, perhaps there needs to be some restructuring done in the fire department, maybe there should be two different departments — one for answering just medical calls and the other for everything else. Perhaps there is a better way to spend taxpayer dollars for emergency services than to use overtime as a justification as Oxnard scrambles to straighten out its own financial problems — Oxnard was put on credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s negative credit watch in September. Oxnard cut $12.8 million from the general fund and had to borrow $16 million via Measure O just to pay the bills. Clearly, the city is in trouble.
What all of this boils down to, however, in the city of Oxnard, just as the new fire chief Bryan Brice takes over this month where two-year chief James Williams left off, is that firefighters are upset that the city had to cut $1 million in overtime pay to handle the city’s financial woes. The cuts included the brownout, or the (for the lack of a better term) decommissioning of a two man truck, the Rescue 66. The operation of that truck has been estimated to cost the department $400,000 per year. Also, there were cuts to training and public appearances. But with regards to the rescue truck, was it vital to emergency services? We tend to be critical and think that isn’t the case.
In 2014 in Oxnard, the average base salary, according to the compensation survey, was $67,404, with overtime pay at an average of $28,534 — 42 percent of the base — and a net total of $3 million paid in overtime for fire fighters, according to recent news report. We think that firefighters should just pull up their boot straps and cope with the cuts made by their struggling city. There are plenty of good people looking for a good and secure paycheck, great benefits and to spend most of their time on less dangerous medical calls.