Union Perks vs. Public Safety

Last year, one of my reporters and her adult son were walking in downtown Sacramento when a couple of young toughs tried grabbing her purse. She pulled back her purse, and the robbers lunged at the two of them, leaving the son’s face covered in blood. Despite a frantic call to 911, the Sacramento police never showed up, nor did they respond to her repeated attempts to file a police report. Mom and son were OK, but a violent attack midday in downtown Sacramento apparently is not a serious-enough crime to warrant any police response.

Apparently, this incident is not unusual. “Armstrong & Getty,” a talk-radio show in Northern California, recently featured a morning drive-time discussion during which listeners shared similar stories of police indifference.

Police officials are blaming budget cuts for their cutbacks in service, but it’s hard to accept this explanation. The other day I saw an officer giving tickets to three teen-agers who were caught riding their bicycles without helmets. One downtown Sacramento officer rides around on a horse and gallops after people who jaywalk. There’s clearly the manpower to hand out tickets (but not to clean up the piles of manure the horses leave behind). It’s a question of priorities.

A recent Modesto Bee report points to this trend: “The California Highway Patrol is handing out more traffic citations than it did a few years ago, and that has generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue for state and local governments.” Another relevant statistic:

The average CHP officer who has retired in the past couple of years is bringing home a guaranteed pension of $98,000 a year (after 25 years of work), with automatic cost-of-living increases.

More Tickets

Police departments aren’t available to provide the services that the public depends upon, but they do have the manpower to increase their revenue-generating ticket operations. They are spending incredible amounts on salaries and benefits. And public safety budgets are consuming the lion’s share of city budgets.

In crime-plagued Stockton, where, because of budget cuts, police will respond only to violent crimes or crimes in progress, 80 percent of the city’s entire budget goes to “public safety,” according to the city manager. If cities spend more on police and fire services, that will leave less than a pittance for everything else.

Police officials acknowledge they are cutting back on services. For instance, in 2010, in the face of budget cuts in the notoriously crime-ridden city of Oakland, the police chief “listed exactly 44 situations that his officers will no longer respond to, and they include grand theft, burglary, car wrecks, identity theft and vandalism,” according to an NBC report. According to a USA Today report last year, “Budget cuts are forcing police around the country to stop responding to fraud, burglary and theft calls.” As budgets have tightened up, the problem is only getting worse.

I previously wrote about Alameda city firefighters who refused to save a suicidal man drowning in San Francisco Bay, then blamed the inaction on budget cuts that deprived firefighters of training for cold-water conditions. This sparked widespread outrage in Northern California, especially after the fire chief told a TV news show that he would not even save a drowning child because of the budget-caused restrictions.

Also, don’t expect better service if you have a civil lawsuit pending before any of the state’s court systems. “San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein announced drastic cuts … to the city’s civil court system in response to funding slashes in the current state budget,” according to the Pleasanton Weekly. “‘We will prioritize criminal, juvenile and other matters that must, by law, be adjudicated within time limits.

“‘Beyond that, justice will be neither swift nor accessible,’ said Feinstein.”

This is a hissy fit. First, officials look everywhere they can to drum up new revenue. Notice all the new “fees” added to traffic tickets.

Sacramento charged drivers or their insurance companies fees of $495 to $2,275 when drivers were involved in a collision that requires a firefighter response, then repealed it in the face of public outrage.

Shutting Down

When officials can’t find enough pennies under the sofa cushions, they engage in what is known as “Washington Monument Syndrome.” When the multitrillion-dollar federal government “closes,” the first thing the officials do is close down the low-cost attractions in the hopes that tourists run home, clamoring for higher taxes. When we see tough times in local budgets, angry officials try to inflict as much pain as possible on the public by denying us services. At every step, they try to scare us into giving them more money. But they also work to assure that we cannot take care of ourselves.

We’re supposed to wait patiently for a police response that might never come. A 1982 state Supreme Court decision (Davidson v. City of Westminster) reminds us the police do not have to help us.

But don’t take matters into your own hands! California’s Draconian gun laws, for instance, put severe limits on our ability to protect ourselves. The public-sector unions also have assured that cities cannot contract out police and fire services to private bidders, where competitive pressures might improve customer service and efficiency.

Governments could improve the bang for the taxpayer’s buck if they reformed pensions, cut back on work rules, brought salaries in line with the marketplace and reduced the special protections that make it nearly impossible to discipline or remove ill-performing employees. Don’t hold your breath.

In the private sector, companies would minimize the pain on customers, who can take their business elsewhere. In the public sector, agencies spend money like crazy, and when they run out, they withhold services.

This is why government is supposed to be limited to the few tasks that cannot be provided in the marketplace.

We need to reject the scare tactics and insist on real, competitive reform. Otherwise, we might be the ones left waiting for the squad car that never comes.

About the author: Steven Greenhut is the editor-in-chief of Cal Watchdog, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture providing original investigative reports and news stories covering California state government. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

3 replies
  1. Richard Rider says:

    The public worker pension debate rages on. And “rage” is the operative term when the unions and their allies discuss switching to 401-k plans from their current guaranteed defined benefit plans.

    Carefully selected sob stories are popping up to justify continuing the public worker guaranteed pensions that are roughly three to four times what private sector workers can expect to receive upon retirement.

    Rather than rehash the usual talking points, I’d like to here list what I consider some key often UNSTATED (and false) assumptions underlying the labor unions’ pitch:

    1. “A government worker should be able to retire comfortably with their pension alone.” No need to otherwise save or invest. No stocks, no savings, no IRA’s, no home equity build-up, no payoff of mortgages and no inheritances. In the private sector, we look to these and other sources for improving our retirement years.

    2. “City workers get zero social security.” Often that is not the case, as over their lives they earn sufficient credits in other employment (10 years total). Granted, there is a severe SS offset against government defined benefit pensions that greatly reduces the monthly SS check, but still some SS is paid. If they choose NOT to make the effort to qualify for SS, whose fault is that? And, BTW, what did the workers do with their SS annual deduction that they didn’t have to make? Why were those funds not invested, and, assuming they weren’t, why is that the taxpayers’ fault?

    3. “It is normal for people to stop working and retire at age 55 to 60.” Not in the private sector! Indeed, many spend their final years trying to sock as much away as possible for retirement. Why should government workers be different?

    4. “A family should be able to retire comfortably on one worker’s pension.” But for most CA families, both spouses are expected to work, save and invest.

    5. “Public employees consist mostly if not entirely of police and firefighters.” As I said, these are UNSTATED assumptions. VERY time the union supporters discuss public employment — those are the occupatons brought forward as typical government work.

    One other common union talking point is that “we don’t want geriatric police and firefighters answering emergency calls.” And they are generally correct.

    We seldom send 60 year old soldiers into the field to battle our foes. But just because most police and firefighters should be retired before age 60 from public safety work does not mean that they are therefore entitled to completely retire from working.

    When a military person retires (as early as [but seldom at] age 37), there are two key points to consider:

    1. Their pension is figured on only their base salary — all the other additions (especially the housing allowance) don’t count. An E-6 staff sergeant retiring after 20 years’ service gets a bit over $19,000 a year retirement pay. A retiring 30 year E-7 will get less than $39,000 a year pension.


    2. It is assumed that military retirees likely will go get another job. Usually they don’t expect to live well on just their military retirement. The same should be true for our cops and firefighters — who have a FAR easier and safer job than our military.

    Our police and firefighters are talented, savvy individuals who would be valuable employees in many fields, though it’s likely that the pay would be less than what they are used to. But somehow I can’t get to0 teary-eyed for them discovering that competitive private sector wages are less than is commonly found in government work.

  2. Just me says:

    We should all be very concerned about the lack of care provided for our veterans. Likewise, I do not take issue with providing for any person willing to risk their life to protect mine. When it comes to any discussion about lowering benefits for police, firefighters and veterans, I get concerned. I do not believe that they should be grouped with teachers and other government workers when it comes to benefits.

  3. Richard Rider says:

    This issue is not whether such public safety workers “deserve” their pay (no matter what the level). The issue is how much do we need to pay to get good police, firefighters, soldiers, etc. After all, we can pay each of them a million dollars a year, and some would say “it’s still not enough.”

    But the problem is that when we provide excessive compensation, we are LESS safe. Our taxes thus provide too few protectors, so the safety function itself deteriorates.

    There are, of course, two ways to gauge the adequacy of compensation in any job — the common criteria used in the private sector:
    1. The number of competent employees who want the job.
    2. The number of existing employees who quit.

    In times past we have had some recruiting problems for police, but with this recession, that has gone away. Yet we still provide excessive compensation.

    For firefighters, the most respected profession in America, in CA we offer salary and pension levels that are wildly out of line with what supply-demand dictate. Remember, 72% of America’s firefighters are VOLUNTEERS, so one need not offer huge compensation because of the risk factor (which, while risky, is safer than quite a number of blue collar jobs).

    No, I’m not saying that we should have volunteer urban (core) firefighters. But the point is we don’t have to pay six figure salaries and pensions for a job that has over a hundred qualified applicants for every (rather rare) opening.

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