Public Safety Compensation and Public Safety

Public sector unions are by far the most powerful special interest in California. And they are united in their goal to pay themselves as much or more than public agencies can afford, which shields unionized public servants from the worst effects of the laws (which they almost always support) that have made California’s cost-of-living the highest in the nation. But there are also significant differences between the various public sector unions in California.

Whatever else one might say about public safety unions, they have not undermined the quality of their profession. To the extent public safety in California is compromised, for the most part that is caused by policies the public safety unions unsuccessfully opposed including Prop. 47, Prop. 57AB 109, and AB 953.

This is in sharp contrast to California’s teachers unions, which by their opposition to charter schools and desperately needed union work rule reforms such as attempted in the Vergara lawsuit, make unconvincing their claims to care about results.

Any criticism of public safety unions should be in this context. Nonetheless, the case must be made that police and firefighter compensation in California has reached a level where at the least it is appropriate to replace their services whenever possible with less expensive solutions.

With respect to firefighters, an example of this can be found with private ambulance services which can, and often do, replace firefighter personnel to respond to medical emergencies. This solution can save municipalities millions of dollars, and can make economic sense without compromising the quality of service.

With respect to law enforcement, an example can be found in Newport Beach, where the issue is whether or not their harbor patrol requires deputy sheriffs, or if those services can be more efficiently performed by local law enforcement and city harbor patrol personnel. The financial impact of this choice is significant.

Using data available on Transparent California, according to analysis performed by local residents who know the names of the deployed personnel and could look each of them up individually, Harbor Patrol Officers and Harbor service workers earned, on average, total compensation in 2018 of $61,176. Even the park rangers employed by Newport Beach, which have “limited peace officer” status (including the power to make arrests) only averaged $84,740 in total compensation. This figure includes everything, base salary, overtime pay, current benefits and the employer’s pension payment.

By contrast, the same analysis showed the average total compensation of Orange County Harbor Patrol Officers assigned to Newport Harbor in 2018 was $291,571. Despite this amazing disparity in compensation, there is a strong case that the services of these Orange County Sheriffs are not required in Newport Harbor.

These figures are clearly debatable. Because most of California’s cities and counties (including Orange County) no longer include in their reports to Transparent California (or to the State Controller) a per employee cost of paying down their unfunded liability, Transparent California adds in their own estimate of that cost. In the case of Orange County, the unfunded liability is now $5.4 billion. Since continuing to fund and pay pensions depends on covering that liability, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t constitute part of total compensation. Also not added in these reports is the present value of the eventual cost for retiree health benefits.

Despite the particulars of this case, however, these personnel policies deserve urgent debate. Should sheriff deputies perform routine inspections and write up minor infractions? Should firefighters respond to medical emergencies? Why, when qualified specialists, often from private firms, can do this work just as well for less money?

Proponents of replacing county sheriffs with local employees make the following arguments. First, as documented by Frank Kim, the Executive Officer of Orange County, in a memorandum to the Board of Supervisors in August, 2018, only 3 percent of “hours spent in response to calls” in Newport Harbor were for criminal activities.” This means that 97 percent of the calls could have been handled by harbor service workers or limited peace officers employed by the City of Newport Beach at far less cost.

Another objection to replacing county sheriffs with local services is that the sheriffs “handle issues in the harbor, outside the harbor, and homeland security,” which supposedly means “the taxpayer is getting a bargain.” But in reality the Coast Guard, which berths a Coast Guard Cutter in Newport Harbor, is responsible for homeland security inside and outside the harbor.

As for other issues that may arise outside the harbor, such as assists for broken down vessels and sea tows, there are third party private companies that can (and do) handle calls for services outside the harbor. Moreover, the City of Newport Beach keeps three rescue boats outside the harbor during peak hours to handle any immediate shoreline calls.

Finally, there remains those 3 percent of calls that are for criminal activities, and clearly some of these criminal activities will involve situations that rangers with “limited peace officer” status will not be trained and equipped to handle. But the City of Newport Beach, at all times, has police officers stationed around the perimeter of the harbor. When very serious law enforcement issues arise, the City Harbor Patrol can simply pick up one or more of these police officers from the nearest dock to assist.

One barrier to pursuing more cost effective solutions to harbor services in Newport Beach is the fact that the Harbor Patrol Budget is funded by Orange County Parks, and is not part of the annual $700 million Orange County Sheriff’s budget. This takes away some of the incentive for the Sheriff’s agency to support more cost effective solutions. It is therefore up to the Orange County Supervisors to determine whether or not they can restore millions to their park budget by directing it to reimburse the City of Newport Beach for harbor security instead of continuing to pay the sheriff’s department for more expensive services.

One may have a civil debate over public safety compensation. There is a strong case to be made that police and sheriffs are not overpaid, since in California they face ongoing challenges to recruit new officers. If their pensions were reduced to a financially sustainable level, more police and sheriffs could be hired, and their base pay might even be increased without breaking municipal budgets. Hiring more officers would also reduce overtime expenses. But part of restoring financial health to California’s cities and counties requires making smart personnel decisions.

Hopefully California’s public sector unions – especially those which have not disgraced their professions – will begin to support letting go of some work assignments, when letting go makes financial and operational good sense.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

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