Imagine what would happen if you walked into your boss’s office and told him that you’re planning to retire at age 50, and you want an annual pension at nearly full salary for the rest of your life – perhaps another 30 or more years – while you lounge around at home or perhaps get another job. He would probably laugh you out of his office. And your boss would be right.
But that’s exactly the situation in the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District, which wants to raise your taxes by $2,200 over the next 10 years (the $197 tax could increase as much as 3 percent annually with inflation).
It might be worth it if all of that money actually provided more fire protection. But a good chunk of it will go to retirees who can quit at 50 with nearly full pay – none of whom will show up if your house is on fire.
Retirement costs are currently $2.5 million, a 26-percent increase from last year. They will rise another 30 percent in the next three years to $3.2 million. At that point a quarter of the budget will go just for retirement expenses. The district had a $21.2 million unfunded liability as of the end of 2010, fourth highest out of 15 special districts in the county.
Retirement expenses are so high because the district’s pensions are significantly greater in many cases than the earnings of taxpayers. It’s calculated based on 3 percent of salary for each year worked. That equates to 90 percent of earnings for someone who started at 20 and retired at 50.
And that works out to a nice pension indeed. The average firefighter earns about $73,000 in base salary, overtime and other earnings. However, there aren’t that many firefighters in this top-heavy district, just 12. There are 15 fire engineers, who average about $91,000 in total earnings. And there are 16 fire captains, who average $87,000. At the very top are the three battalion chiefs, who average $115,000, and the chief, who enjoys $138,000.
As a result, a firefighter who puts in 30 years and retires at age 50 might receive $65,000 every year for the rest of his life. A retired fire engineer might get $82,000 annually, a retired fire captain might receive $78,000/year, a battalion chief might retire on $103,000 per year and the retired chief would have to get by on $124,000 each year for the rest of his retirement. Retiree medical benefits are an added bonus.
With these generous benefits, is it any wonder that, despite this tax hike bringing in an extra $100 million to the district in the next 10 years, the budget is projected to once again be operating at a deficit in just four years? In 2016 the district will be spending $400,000 more than it’s taking in. The fiscal hemorrhaging will continue every year after that, accumulating $2.5 million in deficit spending by the time the tax hike expires in 10 years. Any guess on whether they’ll be asking for an even larger tax hike at that point?
The district doesn’t have a revenue problem – it has a spending problem. Raising the retirement age, adjusting the top-heavy staffing and reducing or eliminating overtime could save the district millions of dollars each year. That money could be used to hire more full-time and paid-on-call firefighters and volunteers.
With gas and food prices skyrocketing, with most taxpayer salaries stagnant and many businesses struggling, this is the wrong time to suck $2,200 out of our wallets and $100 million out of the local economy for a mismanaged government district.