Economics class

Last call for poets:
Poetry 99 submissions are due by Nov. 1. Adults have written in droves; we’re hoping for more students and spoken-word poets. Check here for details.

Richard Ek has spent his retirement years writing for the Chico News & Review. His passion this year has been the city budget—specifically the relationship between public-safety contracts and Chico’s growing deficit.

His full-time job is concerned citizen, so it’s not surprising that he rose to speak at the Finance Committee meeting Monday night (covered in News).

His professorial air immediately took hold. Positioning himself at an angle to the lectern so he could address the audience, city councilmembers and staff at the same time, he was part Socratic, part pedantic—both posing and answering questions as he imparted information and opinions.

I don’t think the City Council will jump on his idea of Chicoans carrying guns to take more responsibility for their own security. But people took notice when Ek expanded the community debate he’s framed, starting with his March 29 cover story, “Breaking the bank.”

He asked whether it is more economical to hire new firefighters or continue to pay loads of overtime. He proposed privatizing emergency medical response, which comprises the vast majority of calls for service the Fire Department receives. He also disputed the Police Department’s notion that adding officers will reduce crime (ergo the concealed-carry notion).

Other speakers, particularly businessman/blogger Lon Glazner, raised similar concerns. Each public-safety employee costs the city an average of $140,000 a year, including benefits worth 62 percent of his/her pay. If finances are so tight, why are police and fire unions getting such sweet deals?

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Gruendl likened officers and firefighters to professional athletes, whose careers are shorter than a normal private-sector worker’s. “We ask these people to do things we’re not willing to do ourselves,” the councilman declared.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn revisited an explanation from a previous Finance Committee session: competition. Of the 1,700 municipalities participating in PERS, the state pension plan, only four have elected to lower retirement contributions for new employees. If Chico became the fifth, the fear is other cities will hire away our people and “we become this perpetual training ground,” Flynn said—“that’s costly.”

It’s true that training represents a significant expense. It’s also true that law enforcers face heavy stress on top of physical risks for disability. It’s true as well that city councilmembers are loathe to publicly challenge police and fire contracts, which are negotiated in private.

None of this is unique to Chico—nor, it turns out, is the money problem. City Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy stated several times during her “Budget 101” presentation that other cities face the same pinch. Ek gave a specific example: Vallejo, projected to go bankrupt by next summer. In the coming fiscal years, more cities and towns will find themselves unable to keep up with the one-upmanship.

Sure, Chico will lose police and fire personnel—it already does, for myriad reasons. Residents may want to pay a premium to minimize this drain (i.e. a sales-tax increment for public safety). Just make sure to open your eyes before opening your wallet.