By BRAD CONNERS
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.