I wrote it

The point is that city-employee compensation levels are unsustainable

We’ve been getting a lot of response to last week’s cover story (see “Strong-arming the budget,” Feb. 27). It struck a chord with taxpayers to see certain city workers, primarily those in public safety, making as much in overtime alone as Chico’s average household income. We expanded the letters space this week, but still couldn’t accommodate for all of them. Other people have commented on the story online. And yet others have been flooding my email inbox. To be blunt, people are pissed off.

The story also hit a nerve with the Chico Police Officers’ Association. On the organization’s Facebook page, its moderator took some potshots at Dave Waddell, author of the story, over his teaching salary at Chico State. It was a typical deflective move from union leaders who in recent years have pressured city administration and City Council members during contract negotiations by using scare tactics that the city’s going to hell in a handbasket. Chico isn’t the small idyllic town it once was, but let’s be real, this isn’t East Oakland.

The CPOA also took issue with our editorial calling for reasonable compensation levels, noting that the piece didn’t have a name attached to it. To drop some knowledge, editorials don’t come with a byline. For the record, I wrote it. The union’s response was to cherry-pick the hourly base pay of the rank and file, while conveniently leaving out the fact that the average benefits package afforded to Chico city personnel is nearly double the state average for municipal workers.

Out of the 10 letters printed on last week’s cover story alone, two are critical of the piece. Both of them lean heavily on the fact that police work and firefighting are taxing, dangerous professions. Based on what I know, I wouldn’t dispute either of those claims. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Chico has inexplicably become one of the highest-paying cities in the state. The point is that the city can no longer afford to be so generous. The point is that the recent givebacks will not do enough to fill the fiscal chasm. The point is that nobody’s going to have a job if the city goes bankrupt.

In fact, some folks are already calling for the city to scrap both the Police and Fire departments. Start over, they say. Others are calling for the city to put together a volunteer fire department, like in the old days. There’s also talk about contracting out for police services. One reader pointed to the city of La Mirada, which contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It’s not an unusual setup. Fullerton is considering dissolving its own 105-year-old Police Department and instead contracting with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The question, based on the feedback from the story, is whether Chico officials should entertain any of these options. I don’t have an answer to that. But I will say this: It’s clear that the total compensation (salary, overtime and especially benefits) of city employees has reached unsustainable levels. Police and fire just happen to account for the bulk of the city’s finances.