I told a friend about the sad financial situation in my hometown of Flint, Mich. The beleaguered city of 105,000 has had 44 homicides this year while Chula Vista, with 243,000-plus residents, has recorded six. The governor appointed an emergency financial manager for Flint in lieu of declaring bankruptcy.
My brother-in-law retired from the Flint Fire Department about 23 years ago. Today his retirement check amounts to little more than chump change. They get no cost of living increases. The EFM is thinking about increasing health care contributions from retirees.
My friend was not sympathetic at all. He said it was horrible that firefighters and cops were able to retire at the same pay they earned while working. (Not so with bro-in-law.) The neighbor blasted the public employee unions and their awesome power.
I finally had heard enough and replaced emotion-laced fiction with facts. I was on the Chula Vista Police contract negotiating team in the ’70s and early ’80s.
We had no “awesome power.” We had no power. We couldn’t go on strike. We didn’t want to anyway. There was that “oath” thing and the “helping people” thing.
I don’t know how police collective bargaining goes these days, but I suspect it isn’t much different than when I sat at the table. We went in there and after several sessions (sometimes involving finger pointing and shouting) we figured out how much the city was willing to give us. They would never tell us up front. Telling us might have been a collective bargaining violation.
The administration would sometimes let us divide up the meager benefit package into how we wanted to receive it (salary increase, uniform allowance increase, etc.). They often wanted us to give back something. One year we removed the Fourth of July as a paid holiday and all the cops worked it like a regular day. Although a “take it or leave it” attitude, if expressly communicated, would have been illegal, that’s about what it was: Take it or leave it.
The assistant city manager once said they didn’t want us to be the lowest paid department in the county. They didn’t want us to be the highest paid either.
We did get involved with politics though. Greg Cox came to the police association in 1976 asking for our endorsement during his inaugural candidacy for City Council. We had never endorsed anyone. Our old guard said we were cops and shouldn’t get involved in politics.
Our then-president was forward thinking and said it was time to wake up and get into the 20th century. We couldn’t live with our heads in the sand. The politicians wanted our endorsement and if we gave it to them, maybe it would help later. While I would never be presumptuous enough to take credit for Greg Cox’s impressive, honest political career, I can say we were on his career ground floor with our endorsement.
The reality today is that some public safety and public employees have pretty nice retirement packages. How did they get them? It wasn’t by going to the table and threatening to close down a grocery store, factory or construction site.
No, the cops and firefighters went in there, like always, and asked what they could get. The city responded by spreading around what they had. In the late-90s and early 2000s the money was plentiful, hence the nice benefits.
The city gave what they did because they could afford it. The future changed and now there is trouble. Don’t begrudge the retired cops and firefighters for plugging along and accepting what the city decided to give them because the city thought they could afford it.
According to the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association, the median annual benefit for retired county employees is $23,544. Shall we go out and buy that Lexus?
Basinski is a past president of the CVPOA and a former member of the bargaining unit.