Calif. city to spend millions to increase firefighter pay
San Jose city council will vote on a tentative agreement that would increase base pay each year for the next five years by at least 3 percent
By Emily DeRuy
The Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. — San Jose’s firefighters appear set to receive a raise that could cost the city tens of millions of dollars in the coming years.
On Tuesday, the City Council will vote on a tentative agreement with the firefighters union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 230, that would increase base pay each year for the next five years by at least 3 percent.
The union represents a range of nearly 700 firefighting employees, from firefighting recruits, who earn about $72,000, to battalion chiefs, who make roughly $134,000 to about $163,000.
“San Jose’s firefighters are now among the absolute lowest paid in the entire Bay Area,” said Sean Kaldor, the president of the union.
The agreement would also roll pay for several things, such as anti-terrorism training, into base pay.
In total, the wage hike and other changes would cost the city a little less than $40 million between now and 2023.
“This is a fair deal that provides a well-deserved raise for our hard-working firefighters who, over the past decade, saw their base pay rise by only 3% while the cost-of-living increased by more than 25%,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement. “In addition, this contract will enable a number of operational improvements within the Fire Department that will help us save lives and respond to emergencies more effectively and efficiently.”
In a memo, Jennifer Schembri, the city’s director of employee relations, and Margaret McCahan, the budget director, wrote that the agreement’s five-year life would provide valuable stability to the city’s workforce and that the terms would help the city improve its fire services.
The agreement would also prompt several other changes, including the creation of a program to rehire retiring firefighters to help with recruitment, public education and other tasks. It would also allow the city to convert 14 sworn positions to civilian jobs, a move that would reduce the city’s costs, and eliminate premium pay for employees on disability leave for two consecutive pay periods.
In a phone interview, Schembri said the agreement would help with recruitment and retention because firefighters will have “some certainty for five years.”
But Councilman Johnny Khamis, one of the city’s more conservative policymakers, is concerned that the increase isn’t a smart move for the city.
“We have to be fiscally responsible with the money that we have,” Khamis said.
When the city developed its 2018-19 budget, a salary increase was factored in. But the wage increase and several other pay shifts in the proposed agreement would leave a gap of about $1.3 million the first year and increase the city’s expected shortfall by several million dollars each year until 2022. In 2022-23, the city had forecasted a nearly $11 million surplus, which would be reduced to about $9 million if the new agreement is enacted.
“My only objection is I don’t want to see us go back to deficit spending where we’re looking for cuts from other departments,” Khamis said.
“We think we can solve for that,” McCahan said during a phone interview, noting that the city’s general fund budget is around $1.4 billion.
San Jose residents are also set to weigh in on two bond measures, including a $650 million bond measure partially aimed at public safety, on the November ballot, which could potentially fill part of the gap.
Kaldor said his union members, who recently ratified the tentative agreement, would be accepting “significant concessions” that would reduce city costs, such as allowing civilians to do some work that is currently done by sworn firefighters and reducing wages while they are being treated for work-related injuries.
“In exchange for these concessions, San Jose’s fire fighters will receive modest wage increases,” Kaldor said, “which will not change the fact that, for the next five years, San Jose’s fire fighters will continue to be among the absolute lowest paid in the Bay Area.”
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