WatchSonoma Watch

GUEST OPINION: In defense of those benefits for public safety employees


Brad Conners is vice president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers’ Association.

Recent media articles have pointed to the city of Vallejo and now possibly the city of Rohnert Park as examples of cities falling into budget ruins due to the benefits and retirements earned by public safety employees.

The Sunday Press Democrat article (“The burden of benefits”) by reporter Jeremy Hay suggests that Rohnert Park may fall into bankruptcy just as Vallejo has. Like Vallejo, they are choosing to blame it on employees, mainly police officers and firefighters.

Rohnert Park Police Officers Association President Dale Utecht attempts to point out something the news sources seem to fail to recognize: The benefits and retirements that many police officers and firefighters receive are negotiated benefits.

In the early 2000s, there was a trend among public safety labor groups to negotiate for 3 percent at 50 retirement. What this means is that once an employee reaches 50 years old, he or she is eligible to retire at 3 percent times the number of years of service, to a maximum of 90 percent of their last, highest-paid year.

At that time, the 3 percent at 50 benefit was taken in lieu of salary increases. The only way for an employee to retire at 50 years old with 90 percent is for that employee to have started when he/she was 20 years old, or for him/her to “buy back” military time, etc. Otherwise, most employees either suffer disability retirement earlier in their careers due to the physical and mental demands of their jobs, work well into their 50s, or retire at less than the full benefit.

The fact of the matter is this: The professions of law enforcement and fire protection were finally recognized as “professions” several years ago and have since been compensated accordingly. Public policy-makers, at long last, recognized the amount of skill and knowledge required to effectively perform these jobs as well as the amount of liability and stress taken on by these employees.

The average life expectancy of a police officer or firefighter is consistently about 10 years less than the average person in other professions. If you are strictly a numbers person, you could then do the math and realize that the sum of our retirement payouts is likely not that different from those of other workers.

In times of budget crisis, it is easy to point fingers at the areas of municipal government that cost the most. The largest piece of the pie will always be taken by public safety departments. We are the only 24/7 operations in nearly every city and county, so our costs are not only higher for pay and benefits but also for a lot of our equipment and other expenses because of the amount of time that they’re used.

We have heard and read time and time again through news sources that municipalities are broke because of the cost of their employees, particularly public safety employees. When you hear or read that, please consider the rest of the information that is all too often overlooked. Your public employees are your neighbors. We are invested in the communities we serve. Our salaries, benefits and retirements were negotiated fairly.

Nearly all of us have made concessions to help out our employers, and we are still willing to look for ways to help, but we still ask to be paid fairly in comparison to other professionals in our respective fields.

If you have questions about these topics, please don’t hesitate to contact the leaders of your public safety labor groups so that you are able to come to an informed opinion.

We catch the bad guys; we are not the bad guys. We put out the fires; we don’t light them.

14 Responses to “GUEST OPINION: In defense of those benefits for public safety employees”

  1. heather blue says:

    Ok mr police man who said:

    Paul Henry and Steve Fraga have both supervised the Violent Crimes Team (Homicide/Robbery), so the nature of their cases requires long hours. If you worked an average of 60 hours a week, I would expect your gross pay to look a little inflated, too.


    Finally, retirement. When 3% @ 50 was approved by many cities and counties, we were in the middle of the dot-com boom and it was EXTREMELY difficult to recruit police officers, firefighters, and teachers. People were flocking to the jobs that would make them millionaires and public service just wasn’t that attractive. I don’t remember anyone complaining about the extravagant salaries and benefits for those people at the time. But, now that times are tough, people are pointing to those who signed up for the long run, ensuring financial security for themselves for years to come rather than jumping on the “get rich quick” bandwagon.


    There are valid arguments against public employees’ salaries and benefits. If you’re going to make those arguments, be factual and include the whole story.


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  2. KW says:

    I did twenty five years in the SRFD. I am a lifelong runner and worked out my entire career. I have no history of heart disease in my family. Two years after retiring at age 60, I ended up with a 99% blocked artery and a stent in my heart. The first five years of my career CalPers took 12.5% of my salary aka 1/2 pay at 55. The subsequent 20 years they took 9% each month aka 2% at 50. I get 72% of my salary. I pay 100% of my health insurance … $495 per month. My deferred compensation fund has NO matching contributions from the city. I have classic job related hearing loss … I’m the guy who acquired a decibel meter, recorded the damaging sound levels and forced the FD hierarchy to provide adequate hearing protection. I get no compensation for the hearing loss as it didn’t reach a compensible level soon enough after retirement.
    Some other facts …
    Santa Rosa firefighters always, Always, ALWAYS were paid the lowest wages of both city and the union lists of comparable cities. This went on for the entire tenure of the infamous City Manager, Ken Blackman. He didn’t like firefighters and could (and did) impose “last best offer”
    wages and benefits. ONLY AFTER WE ASKED THE CITIZENS FOR BINDING ARBITRATION did we and law enforcement
    begin to get fair (mid-range) salary and benefits. Relationships were terrible and Blackman was universally disliked by both police and fire. Blackman kept the city solvent, but he did it off the flesh of his employees whilst making big money for himself, in the process.
    Also, if you don’t like paying high salaries and overtime to your police and fire employees … hire an additional employee to do the work … then you will discover what most experienced government and business leaders already know, overtime is always, always, cheaper than full time replacement. You silly gooses are making money off those overtime compensations. Your choice, your money or your pride … it’s your choice when it comes to essential services.
    Fact 2 … most of the people out there who quote Vallejo’s situation as proof of public safety gone wild, either are not old enough or just want to mislead folks. In the 70′s the courts imposed binding arbitration on Vallejo because it had so grossly abused it’s public employees rights. You want to blame someone for Vallejo’s miseries, blame those city management and elected officials … they are 1000% responsible for poor Vallejo’s predicament.
    Fact 3 … 3% at 50 with 90% max, is a creature of the CHP. All public safety agencies FOLLOW the CHP lead (1/2 pay at 55 > 2% at 50 > 3% at 50).
    Fact 4 … agencies who find themselves in trouble today are generally those who took advantage of deferring contributions when CalPers investments were reaping high returns. They always knew they would have to pay the piper if things got worse. Again, blame ELECTED OFFICIALS AND THEIR MANAGEMENT for this predicament. CalPers has wisely terminated this option, because agencies will take the money and run … amok.
    Finally … public employees are good people … they work hard … they show up … I reckon there is enough evidence to indicate that the private sector rips you-all off at a rate 50 to 100 times greater than government. So if you really want to go after bad guys, go after BofA, Chevron, Exxon, mortgage brokers and lobbyists. Don’t forget that small band of extreme conservative legislators who held 35 million Californians hostage for three months this last budget cycle. They and their ilk, are greedy, uncaring and in many cases guilty of criminal activity … ALL WITH YOUR MONEY. My pension is my money … keep your hands off. I pay my way and I paid my way.

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  3. Mike says:

    Local police and fire do a good job generally. The problem is they contribute and endorse local political races. All of this is legal under state law. Local politicans owe them because of this.

    City councils and public safety unions are equally responsible for things like lucrative retirement plans, overtime schemes, work schedules, and other extra pay issues that have made these benefits unaffordable in this ecoonomy.

    Benefits and salaries will have to be cut to sustain a reasonable level of public safety service. It’s time for city councils and public unions to wake up, stop complaining and start to negotiate. State laws need to be changed so public employees cannot contribute or endorse county or local political candidates or campaigns.

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  4. North Bay Blue says:

    SRPD has 177 sworn personnel from top to bottom (including the Chief, two Captains, 7 Lieutenants, and 20 Sergeants). There are only about 140 sworn OFFICERS, which are the people who actually respond to calls and conduct investigations. That staff of 140 includes patrol, detectives, school resource officers, traffic, etc. So, your math is a little off about covering every square mile 24/7.

    In 2009, the City of Santa Rosa was looking to cut 23 sworn positions, which would have included layoffs of several officers. Santa Rosa Police Officers and Police Management Associations gave up nearly 10% in projected pay increases to not only save those positions, but give the City the opportunity to hire more officers to keep the department fully staffed.

    SRPD has a corps of volunteers who are able to perform the crossing guard duties, so the children will not be dodging traffic as you suggest.

    Every department has to account for overtime. There are times when officers can’t just “clock out” and go home. In-custody reports, ongoing investigations, volume of calls for service, and court or just a few major sources of unavoidable overtime for officers.

    That brings me to my next point. The list of salaries in Heather’s comment includes overtime. Bill Shubin effectively performs TWO jobs within the Fire Dept, so he naturally has a ton of overtime. Paul Henry and Steve Fraga have both supervised the Violent Crimes Team (Homicide/Robbery), so the nature of their cases requires long hours. If you worked an average of 60 hours a week, I would expect your gross pay to look a little inflated, too.

    Finally, retirement. When 3% @ 50 was approved by many cities and counties, we were in the middle of the dot-com boom and it was EXTREMELY difficult to recruit police officers, firefighters, and teachers. People were flocking to the jobs that would make them millionaires and public service just wasn’t that attractive. I don’t remember anyone complaining about the extravagant salaries and benefits for those people at the time. But, now that times are tough, people are pointing to those who signed up for the long run, ensuring financial security for themselves for years to come rather than jumping on the “get rich quick” bandwagon.

    There are valid arguments against public employees’ salaries and benefits. If you’re going to make those arguments, be factual and include the whole story.

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  5. DICK says:

    Does Santa Rosa spend too much on its police department?
    There are about 177 police officers in the SRPD. That enough to have to have an officer in every square miles of the city at all times [24/7] without overtime, and allowing time off for vacations, sick leaves and holidays.
    During our economic difficulties SRPD is not cutting a police position nor pay and is budgeting for overtime. Yet SRPD is cutting all school crossing guard’s funds. Doesn’t public safety include children crossing a street to school?
    Some people think because SRPD is over staffed, some of our tax dollars could be better spent. They would fund school crossing guards and make smaller cuts to schools, parks, libraries, health, housing, streets. Where would you redirect funds?
    Is there benefit from spending more than what is needed for public safety? Enough is enough.

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  6. Ford says:

    SRFD has given back by deferring raises the past two years totaling 9%, money in reality they will never see. It’s time to go after the non-union city employees who have NO cap on their retirement. If you work for the city for say 40 years you could retire with 120%! Also remember, fire works a 56 hour work week, straight time, not overtime. How many of you would work an extra 16 hours a week without demanding overtime?

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  7. John says:

    Rohnert Park fire/police folks need to get real and pay their fair share of their retirement. That’s 8-9% for most public employees.

    The 3%/50 Public Safety retirement needs to end. Most of these guys/gals go on a second job while pulling a pension from their first job. If you don’t believe me, look at the DA’s investigators. Almost all of them are retired cops pulling a pension from another agency, while knocking down over $100,000 from the DA’s office.

    If the job is so stressful that they need to retire in their early 50′s, how can they go on to a second career in the same stress filled vocation?

    At a minimum, they should not be allowed to draw a pension if they go to work in another public safety position at another agency.

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  8. Karla Sofen says:

    One of the key points missing here is that many of the line officers who end up with large annual income are working overtime – a lot of overtime. You’d make twice your salary if you worked an 80 hour week. Would you object to a manager at In-N-Out Burger making $100,000? If they worked 40 hours overtime a week, that’s what they’d get.

    I don’t know why Connors never mentioned this in his article. Because of the economy, cities can’t hire as many officers as they need, so by necessity require overtime to cover shifts. You can’t expect police to work for free anymore than you would. If you had a good contract, I doubt you’d waive compensation you’d bargain for to “save the city.”

    At one point, Barry Bonds was making $80,000 per second playing for the Giants. Is he or anyone really worth that? He’s worth whatever someone will pay for his services.

    People are used to a certain level of service and forget how much that costs. The city’s leaders obviously can’t agree to contracts of this type in the future. But that’s a leadership problem. You’re blaming Barry Bonds. No need to resent the officers.

    Almost no one wants to be a cop anymore. They just are not held in high esteem anymore and the integrity of the typical 21 year old is so poor, they can’t be hired anyway. So who is going to do this job? It’s going to be costly. You just can’t have a police force of altruists working for free.

    Of course the police leadership could cut costs by not handling all the BS calls and creating all the BS paperwork that hinders the effort to handle “real” crime. I’d cut back on that to save costs — but that would generate a new set of complaints when people didn’t get the service level they expect and again, the “leaders” are unwilling to make these hard decisions.

    Some cities will bankrupt, but it’s because of the city leaders not making the hard decisions, not because officers devote their entire waking lifetime working – to the detriment of their physical health and their families while the public expects them to work for free and never retire.

    It’s understandable why people resent that officers get a pension so young. Look at the criminals out there. Some fat A 50 year old can’t do much. But I’m thinking of the former chief in Rohnert Park who retired after over thirty years. That guy was a volunteer in RP since he was a teenager and his entire adult life was devoted to public service and over 30 years he made it to the top. He earned the retirement he got. A lot of this is sour grapes and general hatred of cops and authority.

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  9. DICK says:

    The City of Santa Rosa asked its departments to cut cost. The Santa Rosa Police department chose to cut from its budget the cost of school crossing guards. The only city council member to express a concern for the children’s safety was Gary Wysocky.

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  10. sam zuech says:

    My, my, another Police Union Official trying to rationalize the extravagant wages and benefits for his Union Brothers. He forgot the tag line: “The Taxpayers are Chumps!” The Police Union sent Vallejo to bankruptcy, now they are doing it to Rohnert Park, and hopefully, Santa Rosa is next. Bankruptcy is the only way to bust these unions and negate the contracts that are sinking city govenments.

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  11. Mike says:

    Nice response Heather. Public Safety employees are untouchable in Santa Rosa. They scare the public and get binding arbitration. They didn’t used to account for the majority of the General Fund – the cost of benefits and salaries for Public Safety employees has gone up much faster than for other General Fund employees, and because Public Safety employees are untouchable, the layoffs needed to balance the budget mostly come from an ever shrinking pool of non Public Safety employees. Pretty soon Fire and Police will need to hire their own support staff, because the rest will have been laid off… Police and Fire should get a clue – you are not considered to be heros by the rest of the City employees.

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  12. Steve says:

    In 2004, the Sacramento Bee published an expose of “chief’s disease” that found 80 percent of CHP chiefs claimed a medical disability in their last two years of work — allowing them to avoid paying taxes on half their pension. Typically, the injury was “cumulative trauma” — the wear and tear that comes with the job — and involved injuries from incidents such as someone falling out of a chair.

    So the argument is if we just give them full wages at 55, at least they will still be paying taxes

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  13. L Cramer says:

    The urban legend that retired public safety officers die young needs to be stopped. CalPers has sufficient data on the life expectancy of its retirees to debunk the myth.

    The average male public safety officer retires at 55. His life expectancy is 82.9 years, which is exactly the same as the general male population retiring at the same age in the CalPers system.

    No one, I think, will argue that the public is well served by paying its safety officers sufficient compensation to attract and keep qualified people.

    But that doesn’t trump the fact that there must a limit. Public employee compensation as a percentage of the general fund in virtually all local governments has been rising for years. It crowds out spending for other functions of government.

    The 3 percent at age 50 provision was initially adopted by the state under the (mistaken) belief that it would cost taxpayers virtually nothing. Like all such promises, this time from CalPers’ analysts, it turned out to be untrue. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    Let’s acknowledge the mistake and correct it.

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  14. heather blue says:

    Be fair, we are all taking hits to our pocketbooks and retirements AND THE COPS NEED TO TOO. All public employees took less in salaries to have more in benefits. They negotiated just like you.

    And please don’t say poor, poor pitiful me I don’t get paid enough. Just look at these 2 databases which list the top salaries for Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park in 2007, making it into the top 3 of the list in salaries for santa rosa, da da: a fire captain 2 SHUBIN, WILLIAM R Fire Captain – Training FIRE $197,346 and a line supervisor for the police department: 3 HENRY, PAUL J Police Sergeant POLICE $190,194. And the top 15, gee 10 of the 15 are police and fire 2 SHUBIN, WILLIAM R Fire Captain – Training FIRE $197,346
    3 HENRY, PAUL J Police Sergeant POLICE $190,194
    4 FLINT, EDWIN F Police Chief POLICE $189,398
    5 SCOLES, GREG D Deputy City Manager $189,087
    6 FRAGA, STEPHEN J Police Sergeant POLICE $184,410
    7 HANLEY, CHARLES J Deputy Fire Chief FIRE $183,592
    8 BASQUE, MARK A Battalion Chief FIRE $182,094
    9 PICCININI, JACK D Battalion Chief FIRE $178,956
    10 FARRELL, BRIEN J City Attorney $178,887
    11 FERRIS, MILES A Director of Utilities UTILITIES $176,613
    12 VARNER, BRUCE H Fire Chief FIRE $174,186
    13 SCHWARTZ, STEPHEN C Police Sergeant POLICE $172,840
    14 SCHLIEF, DOUGLAS A Police Sergeant $171,537. And gee Mr. Connors, your pay was not that bad either “#195 CONNERS, BRADLEY R Police Officer $109,337″ There are MANY other police and fire in the over $100,000 club. see the website http://www.sfgate.com/webdb/santarosapay/

    Now for the poor underpaid Rohnert Park officers. i just need to quote a PD article “In the case of police officers, the difference in contracts means the city has to annually pay CalPERS an amount equal to 43 percent of each officer’s salary. That makes the average salary and benefit package for an officer $145,492, said Sandy Lipitz, the city’s finance director. In contrast, for other city employees, the city pays an pension premium amount equal to 25 percent of their annual salary. The average non-sworn employee’s wages and benefits cost the city $83,627, Lipitz said.” Also “To pay retiree benefits, and to prepare for future retirements, the state’s Public Employees’ Retirement System collects premiums that are a percentage of each employee’s salary from the city and invests them. Under Rohnert Park’s contract with its 61 sworn public safety employees, the city pays the officers’ entire 9 percent employee share. Rohnert Park’s 99 other non-sworn employees pay a percentage of their employees’ share; in most cases, 7 percent of a required 8 percent. So the police/fire officers get all their retirement costs paid by the city while the less paid non-sworn city workers pay their own retirement costs. Pretty lucrative don’t cha say?

    And police union president and highly paid police officer Utecht said the nature of public safety officers’ work outweighs the pension issue in the public eye. However an article from the Community Voice Newspaper said the Number 1 call for service in rohnert park was : da da: “Party Distrubance”

    “I would say that when the majority of the public has an emergency and calls for a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical services, they do not care what our pension benefits are,” he said. “They want someone to run toward the gunshots, into the burning home or to stop the bleeding, and they want that done as quickly as possible.”

    The problem is the police unions run scare tactics to get people to leave them alone, they threaten the “blue flu” and tell people you won’t be safe. Cities that have cut their officers are just as safe and their cities are doing better. Just look at Cotati.

    It’s despicable when the “police union” is trying to justify why their members should be spared the hurt of the budget crisis, especially in a City that is now cutting all their other workers. We all have to take a hit and so does police and fire. Nothing personal but you are not immune to budget cuts and a bad economy. Heck even the judges and legislatures are taking cuts to their pocketbooks. Yes you may have held raises for a year or two to get better benefits, but you all finally got those raises. Sonoma County law enforcement is among the top paid inthe State and Country. “Former Santa Rosa employees made up more than half of Sonoma County’s 53 total retirees who were collecting more than $100,000 a year. A majority of them were from public safety” This quote is directly from the article I cited below.

    The fact remains that Rohnert Park is hurting finacially. The police and fire benefits should be looked at to reduce. VAllejo IS in a crisis because of their lucrative benifts to public safety, period.

    Here is a link to the lucrative benefits of police and fire. A lieutenant, a mid level manager is on last years list of top 100 retirees making $100,000 of more in pension in Sonoma County, so too were many others who retired from police and fire. http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20090517/ARTICLES/905169959
    “Included on the list was former Santa Rosa Police lieutenant Tom Swearingen, who retired last year at 50 and gets about $118,000 a year…”

    “California has they most extravagant pension benefits in the nation,” said Richman, a former Republican assemblyman from Los Angeles whose non-profit collected the retirement data from CalPERS. “It’s becoming an increasing part of the budget that is taking away from other services that are important for our quality of life.”

    SO please, we are all in this together, the police and fire associations need to be realistic and they cannot claim give us the world or you will not be safe!

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