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Richard Rider

Firefighters are the happiest workers in the nation — even WITHOUT the CA $200,000+ annual compensation and $100,000 pensions

The Bloomberg news service has just published the results of a study that shows that America’s paid firefighters are the happiest workers in the nation.  And by no small margin.  They LOVE their job!

This fact is not surprising, considering that 69% of the country’s firefighters are volunteers — America’s TRUE firefighting heroes.  It gets more interesting when one considers that — as the article points out — the nation’s median firefighter wage rate is under $50,000 annually.

Given that firefighting is probably the most desired job in America, the question it raises is this:  Why do we taxpayers pay California “firehouse” firefighters $150,000 to $300,000+ total annual compensation?

Since I can’t find the numbers for my city of San Diego firefighters, I’m using as an example the next largest city in my county — Chula Vista (CV) — using the 2018 payroll figures.  CV pays well, but not significantly more than the other cities in San Diego County.

I glean these numbers from Transparent California, a nonprofit that collects the payroll data from a CA agency.  Sometimes their figures are UNDERstated, as not all local governments fully report their full employee costs to the state.  Never are these figures OVERstated.  Feel free to go to this website to look up the compensation figures for any local California government or agency.

Let’s look at the basic “firefighter” position.  This category constitutes two of the four people on a firetruck. Newbies start at about $53,500 base pay and quickly move up.  The lowest full-time firefighter’s total compensation (doubtless a newbie)  includes the base salary ($53,600), other pay ($7,900), overtime ($4,400) and benefit costs ($18,300).  That totals to over $93,000.  Looking at the 53 full-time CV firefighters, their average total compensation is about $175,000 a year.  Fourteen make over $200,000 annually.  The top basic firefighter makes $245,000 in total compensation.

Each truck has one guy designated as the driver — called the “fire engineer.”   In essence, this person is a firefighter who also drives the truck. The lowest CV total compensation for this category is $157,000, and the highest paid engineer costs taxpayers $287,000 annually.

Then consider the position of “fire captain.” That’s the person who is in charge of the 3-4 man (oops!) fire truck.  In CV, their base pay is $105,000.  Add in their overtime, “other pay” and benefits, and their total compensation ranges from $330,000 to “only” $198,000.  It averages over $260,000.

It should be noted that most career (30 year) firefighters retire as “captains” — not “firefighters.” Their CV pension is figured based on their $105,000 captain base salary plus “other pay” for specialties (it does NOT include overtime pay as commonly thought) — even if earned for just a couple years.

If these retiring employees are under the old “90% at 30” pension plan, they will retire with a much higher pension than what their base pay provided in take-home pay.  That’s because their paycheck included major deductions for union dues and pension costs.  Once retired, they no long have these deductions out of their pension checks.  And yes, these retirees will more often than not receive $100,000+ pensions as a result — plus an annual limited COL increase.

Moreover, many firefighters retire with a partial or full disability designation — which is often based on middle age maladies (including old sports injuries) that seldom have much to do with them being a firefighter.  With that “disabled” designation, up to 50% of their pension pay is considered income tax free by both the U.S. and state governments.  Because of our progressive income tax brackets, 50% tax-free translates into a 70% or higher reduction in income tax paid.

So again I ask:  Do we CA taxpayers need to pay such incredible compensation to our firefighters?  Are we having trouble finding competent people who want to be firefighters — probably the most prized job in the land?  Why are most other states able to pay far lower salary and benefits to get their paid firefighters (the firefighters who are NOT volunteers)?

It’s a mystery.