Hefty Paychecks for Police Officers and Firefighters in California

fire-truckIn 2015, five San Jose police officers each made more than $400,000.

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A payroll error? In fact, they earned every penny by the book.

Hefty compensation, it turns out — including regular pay, overtime and benefits — is not unusual for public safety employees in California.

“It is routine now for firefighters to be up over $200,000, $300,000,” said Mark Bucher, chief executive officer of the California Policy Center, a public policy think tank. “Look at just about any city and you’ll see the same thing.”

Take, for example, the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, which covers a portion of southern Contra Costa County.

The county’s median household income is roughly $80,000.

One reason for the high compensation: It can be cheaper for jurisdictions to pay big overtime — at 1.5 times or double regular pay — than it would be to add staff because of the pension liabilities attached to each new hire.

For San Ramon firefighters, every dollar of salary means roughly one more dollar in pension contributions, said Paige Meyer, the fire chief. “When I’m paying over $2 for a full-time employee and I can pay a dollar and a half for overtime,” he said, “I’ve got a substantial savings.”

As a result, a firefighter paramedic with a salary of $87,700 who puts in long overtime hours can end the year with total compensation well above a quarter-million dollars.

Pensions guaranteed to California police and fire personnel allow them to retire in their 50s and draw 70 percent or more of their peak pay as long as they live. Most private sector employees have no pensions.

Public safety unions say the pay packages ensure a well-earned retirement for workers in bruising jobs. Mike Mohun, president of the San Ramon firefighters union, said the focus should be on lifting other occupations to the same standard.

“When I see someone attacking the benefits the Fire Department receives or the Police Department receives, my concern is: Why wouldn’t you expect the same for yourself?” he said. “We should act as a beacon.”

Public policy experts, however, say safety workers’ pensions are playing a part in pushing a number of California cities toward bankruptcy.

“We already have a crisis,” said Joe Nation, a professor of public policy at Stanford University. “How does it end? It will be a political fix. Or, you’ll have lots of cities that just say, ‘Uncle. We can’t do this.’”

For financially troubled cities, that could mean sharp cuts to basic services, he said.

This piece was originally published by the New York Times.


  1. Andrew Kessel says

    A person that could make $400,000 in a public sector job might be willing to do anything to keep that job….including enforcing unconstitutional laws that were passed by a supermajority, who publicly labels them as incompetent and racist. I hope not.

  2. retiredxlr8r says

    I’ve always said that if you get a job as a fireman you have won the lottery!
    Bottom line, these wages and benefits need to be trimmed way back. They have gone to far and even current retirement checks need to be trimmed.
    Sorry, but it has gone to far, it is time for them to except a fair wage, comparable to the rest of the employed world!

  3. T.Hussey says

    When comparing fire and police salaries to ‘median incomes’ it’s a little like comparing apples to oranges in that ‘median household incomes’ are not fully burdened i.e. when factoring in insurance, and other fringe benefits that most people earn, that $80,000 median household income then becomes much higher.

  4. askeptic says

    At some point those checks are going to bounce.
    Then what?

  5. Michael Flynn says

    Makes me appreciate the great work and just how much the volunteer firefighters are worth across this country.
    The problem with these departments is that they are paid by government unions not private unions. Shouldn’t their pay be determined by their communities income and shouldn’t their retirement be the same as most private companies? like putting their own money into a 401k or some other private retirement fund?

  6. Michael Flynn says

    Makes me appreciate all of the volunteer firefighters around this great country. I would think they might feel kind of left out here. What I appreciate of them is they give their time for the right reasons. Part of the problem here is that the firefighters pay is from the government. I would think their base salary would be based on their communities budget Their retirement package should be the same as someone working in the private sector. They pick out the retirement package they want, like a 401k, and the money for it comes out of their paycheck, just like the rest of us. Remember FDR said that unions should not exist in the public sector. This shows why.

    • sweetsuzee says

      When civil service first began the agreement was that they would work for between 20 and 30% LESS than their private sector counterparts and we’d cover them for life with salary, health benefits and pensions.

  7. LeRoy Foster says

    Just base their pension on base pay and don’t allow accumulation of sick/vacation time.

  8. Remember FDR said that unions should not exist in the public sector because of librat politicians corruptions. Unions paid for commie librat politicians to get elected so they have to pay back to union bosses by other people money (taxpayers) not their money so they do not care. Librat politicians have full powers and receive more bribes and very hefty salary for themselves without dangerous for their lives like policemen or firefighters.

  9. Patton'sGhost says

    I knew I should have passed on business school…
    The firefighters get paid to work out, usually have hot wives, nice weekend toys, landscaping jobs on their days off AND these retirement benefits???
    Life ain’t fair…

  10. M. Ketterer says

    Can you tell me why you included police officers in this story when there was no one interviewed from the police organizations? The San Ramon fire Department does not speak for any police agencies! How about you write a story on how police agencies have reduced pension payouts and developed a tiered stucture to assist state agencies as well as local agencies! If you’re going to report a story, put it on the back of that agency and tell the Fire Chief to stop pointing fingers and man up to his own department!

  11. It is even worse than this! Assume a fire or police department is at full strength of 20 personnel which is necessary to maintain functions. Then a person retires at 50+. He/She has at least 20 more years of life all the time drawing 70% to 90%of their salaries (some departments do) for 20+ more years. To maintain full strength the department must hire a replacement. Extend that to every retiree and soon you have multiple people doing the job of one person, all drawing a hefty salary. At times a 20 man department could have 30 to 40+ people, all drawing salaries to do a 20 man responsibility. No wonder these cities are going bankrupt!

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