The big things are most important

By From page A6 | December 26, 2013

If you listen to most veteran sports broadcasters, you often will hear them say, “It’s the little things that win you ball games.” But if you have any common sense, you know that is malarkey.

Teams that win, in all sports, are those that do the big things right. That’s why they are the big things.

In Davis, back in 2007, out to save the planet, our City Council banned bottled water from all city-sponsored events, including council meetings. One member at that time exclaimed how “this little thing” symbolized the frugality of Davis’ elected officials.

Unfortunately, the majority on that council was under the delusion that the big things don’t count. They saved us $25 on bottled water, after they agreed to compensation increases for city employees worth tens of millions of dollars.

Evian was out. But the firefighters’ 36 percent pay hike was in. All employees got unaffordable salary raises. Pension outlays for non-public safety personnel were lifted up to an unsustainable level.

When it comes to managing a city, the big thing that matters most is paying employees no more than you can afford. The game is lost when the cost of labor increases faster than the revenues coming in. Critical services will be cut, jobs will be axed and bankruptcy will loom.

Fortunately, Davis now has a council majority that is getting some of the big things right. On Dec. 17, they voted 5-0 to impose a contract on the recalcitrant Davis firefighters. This deal is far from perfect. But it’s a start in the right direction.

It took almost two years — from the time negotiations began — to get where we are now. The city says it cost “approximately $28,000 per month each month an agreement (was) not reached with the Davis Professional Firefighters Local 3494.” Over the past 22 months, that adds up to $616,000. That’s a helluva lot of bottles of Aquafina.

The primary change in the new contract, which now applies to all city employees, is a lower cost of the medical benefit cash-out.

Currently, the medical benefit for firefighters is worth up to $26,323 per man per year, according to information provided to me by Melissa Chaney, the city’s human resources director. Firefighters are allowed to pocket 80 percent of any of that benefit they don’t use.

If one chooses a plan that costs $6,323 per year, he gets a cash-out of $16,000 (80 percent of $20,000). If he forgoes the city’s insurance entirely, he gets a cash-out of $21,059 on top of his salary.

Under the imposed contract, the medical benefit for cash-out is capped at $6,000 per year, phased in by June 30, 2015. That means all employees who choose plans that cost the city $6,000 or more no longer will receive cash back. Those who get their medical insurance elsewhere — saving the city money by doing so — will get a maximum cash-out of $6,000.

Because the contract was not agreed to by the firefighters, the city could not legally reduce the amount it pays for the medical benefits of future retirees. The city had proposed to lower this expense from $22,778 per year per current employee to $6,921. The idea was to cover medical costs for its retirees, but require them to pay the extra cost for dependents after they quit working.

Even with the imposed contract, it remains the case that we are paying our firefighters far too much. The city of Davis expects a general fund deficit of $5.1 million in the next fiscal year.

Our firefighters are valuable public servants. They do a fine job and put themselves at risk once in a while. But there is no excuse to pay them more than we can afford.

It makes no sense, for example, that we pay our firefighters $20,000 more per year than we pay Davis police officers with an equal amount of experience. Cops don’t have tough jobs?

Firefighters, who are paid to eat and sleep on duty, make a lot of money in overtime. Police officers don’t. Yet not counting overtime pay, a Step 5 firefighter costs us $171,664 this year. A Step 5 cop earns $151,176.

Despite a desperate attempt by 10 local Democratic Party leaders — many of whom accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Davis firefighters — to stop the agreement with UC Davis, the current City Council recently voted 3-2 to combine the top management of the Davis and university fire departments. That will save the city and university money, and it will provide better service. It also hurts Davis Professional Firefighters Local 3494’s ability to control the chief.

But what cannot be done yet — because the benefits package for Davis firefighters is so expensive — is to merge the two departments entirely. (This idea has been on the table for 20 years.) The base salary for both departments is roughly the same. But where a UCD firefighter’s benefits cost $32,603 per year, a city of Davis firefighter’s benefits cost $78,686 — 2.4 times as much.

If the city of Davis paid its firefighters a more modest amount, we would not lack for good people willing to take those jobs. Hundreds of hopefuls line up for days just for the chance to be interviewed.

There’s nothing wrong with getting little things right. But until Davis fixes the big things, we are sure to lose.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]

Rich Rifkin

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