Reality check

The only hindrance to Police and Fire departments being fully staffed is their own greed

For several years, Chico’s public-safety departments have been ramping up the rhetoric about how underfunded they are. The Chico Police Department and the local police union, the Chico Police Officers’ Association, have been the most vocal—and sensationalistic—regarding the impacts to their staffing. Anyone remember the CPOA’s billboard decrying that “The gangs are hiring, why aren’t we?” We do.

Sure, the Chico Police Department has lost personnel through retirements. So have other departments throughout the city. But those other departments have also seen mass layoffs. Some of them, along with city services, have been cut to the bone. (Case in point: We no longer have a crew dedicated to Chico’s trees.)

Not so with public safety. The Police and Fire departments have remained relatively untouched. Indeed, they have been treated as sacred cows. With the exceptions of Councilman Randall Stone, and to a lesser degree Councilman Mark Sorensen, Chico’s elected leaders have been reticent to call out either department over their respective employees’ exorbitant compensation.

And one of them, Councilman Sean Morgan, has become de facto spokesman of the CPOA, backing up the union’s propaganda at every turn. He’s even gone so far as supporting the CPOA as its leader made the mistake of defending a police officer’s overtly racist and homophobic Facebook postings. That move likely will haunt Morgan, should he turn out to be politically ambitious. Isn’t he supposed to be conservative?

But back to those excessive salaries. As is pointed out in this week’s cover story (see “Strong-arming the budget,” page 20), Chico ranks 25th among the state’s 482 incorporated cities for highest-paid employees. Our fair city ranks just above San Francisco. You read that correctly. With salary and benefits combined, the average compensation for a city of Chico worker is $99,585 annually. The average in the City by the Bay is $99,337.

We will grant that San Francisco and Chico are not equal. Here, we have fewer employees on the lower-paying end of the spectrum. Still, if you look at the top-paid personnel in both cities, you’ll see a lot of firefighters and notice that the dollar amounts aren’t very divergent. In other words, many of Chico’s public-safety personnel, who live in a city with a median household income of $43,000, are pulling in salaries similar to personnel who live in one of the most expensive cities in the nation. Simply put, it’s ridiculous.

The Police and Fire departments eat up more than 80 percent of the entire general fund. Fact is, the bloated salaries of their employees during these financially turbulent times have meant reductions in city services.

Here’s a reality check for the Police and Fire departments: Both of them could be fully staffed if the salaries and benefits packages of current personnel were reduced to reasonable levels. It’s unconscionable that certain employees have been allowed to pad their incomes with overtime in the triple digits. That money could have paid for additional personnel—something that truly would be beneficial to the taxpayers.

These public-safety departments are essential to maintaining the quality of life here in Chico, but the fact remains that overly generous compensation packages have stretched the city’s budget beyond its means.

Both unions made some concessions recently, but the savings through these contract negotiations don’t go nearly far enough. The leaders of the local public-safety departments and their unions most certainly will continue to intimidate the City Council and new city management. They will cry out about a rise in crime and a lack of resources. This is where Chico’s residents come in. The next time these departments complain that they need additional personnel, remind them that the only hindrance to them becoming fully staffed is their own greed.