Calif. firefighters accept pension cut

The deal with San Bernardino County firefighters is expected to save the county $2.14 million per year

By James Rufus Koren
The Redlands Daily Facts

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — San Bernardino County firefighters have agreed to pay more toward their pension benefits and take smaller raises, but only if other unions agree to the same concessions.

The deal, approved Thursday by 98 percent of the county's 344 firefighters, is expected to save the county $2.14 million per year. It's part of a larger plan to cut rising pension costs by $30 million a year.

"County firefighters are hyperaware of the economic climate out there," said Bret Henry, the president of the San Bernardino County Professional Firefighters, Local 395. "We're living through the hard times as well. We're interested in a balanced budget as much as everybody else."

The key concession approved Thursday is that firefighters will start to pay all of the "employee share" of pension contributions.

The average firefighter's share amounts to 10.6percent of his or her annual pay, according to the county retirement board. For years, though, the county has been paying 7 percent of the employee share.

That means the average firefighter now pays 3.6 percent of his or her salary into the county pension fund. Under the deal approved Thursday, which takes effect July 2, firefighters will pay the full 10.6 percent.

Other concessions include taking smaller annual raises - 2.5 percent instead of 5 percent - and swapping a health-insurance benefit that counted toward pensions for one that doesn't.

Facing a budget deficit expected to grow to $122.5 million over the next five years, county leaders are asking all county employees to accept the same set of concessions.

The county Board of Supervisors voted last week to get the same concessions from more than 500 "exempt" employees, including board staff members and administrators. The firefighters' union is the first county union to accept the deal.

Because county leaders want all employees to accept the concessions, the deals for exempt employees and firefighters include so-called "me-too" clauses, meaning the concessions will only happen if they're accepted by all employees.

"The leadership they've displayed makes their sacrifice particularly heroic," Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Josie Gonzales said of the firefighters' vote. "Our firefighters are to be commended for putting public safety and public service first."

County CEO Greg Devereaux has said the county would have to make severe cuts to county services and have a "significant number" of layoffs if all employees don't accept the concessions.

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