Hefty Paychecks for Police Officers and Firefighters in California

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

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.

Court Will Stop Suspending Driver’s Licenses Over Unpaid Fines

parking ticketUnder pressure from civil liberties groups, Contra Costa County Superior Court announced last week a moratorium on the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid fines.

In March, the ACLU of Northern California and other groups urged the California Judicial Council — the policy-making board of the California court system — for action, arguing that suspending licenses for unpaid fines disproportionately affects lower-income drivers.

The ACLU and others have been targeting individual courts as well in Bay Area counties. Contra Costa County Superior Court responded last week saying the Failure to Pay policy was under review.

“The court will suspend all FTP referrals until further notice,” Steven K. Austin, presiding judge of the Superior Court, wrote last week to the ACLU of Northern California and Bay Area Legal Aid. Austin added the moratorium had already begun.

In many instances, drivers receive an initial fine for some violation, with lots of additional fees tacked on. What was a $100 fine could be several hundred dollars and only swelling from there, sometimes escalating to thousands as payment is not made.

This often leads to a suspension, which limits the driver’s ability to get to work and perpetuates the problem, the coalition of civil liberties groups argued. And many of these citations are for minor infractions like not wearing a seat belt or not signaling on a turn.

By the end of 2015, more than 1.9 million Californians, many of who whom are unemployed, disabled or homeless, had suspended licenses for failure to appear or failure to pay on citations, according to data provided by civil liberties groups.

Data shows a strong correlation between high poverty rates and high suspension rates in the bay area.

“What we’re looking for is a system that doesn’t punish people for being poor,” Micaela Davis, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, previously told CalWatchdog. “What we see is that the fines and fees are so exorbitant on simple traffic citations that people simply can’t afford to pay.”

Detractors may argue that it’s the driver’s actions that incurred the fine in the first place, but Davis dismissed that notion, saying there are more effective ways of handling the issue.

“We can hold people accountable without also ruining their lives,” Davis said.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California Zika virus cases inch up to eight

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

California public health officials on Friday reported that two more cases of Zika virus have surfaced in the state since Jan. 1, bringing the total to eight.

Half of those have been in Bay Area counties. Contra Costa County has reported two cases, with San Francisco and Napa counties reporting one each.

Health officials said all of the residents had contracted the virus after traveling in countries where the Zika virus is present. None of the individuals is considered contagious.

The Napa County resident is pregnant, meaning that her baby is at risk of having a birth defect.

While the Alameda County Public Health Department confirmed that …
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