Newly elected San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio's sixth annual “$100K Club” report was an easy sell to the Union-Tribune's editorial board. “Underpaid, really?” the headline of a Feb. 4 editorial asks. “Nearly 12 percent of city workers top $100,000.”
The editorial went on to dig into the city's police and firefighter unions, whose members comprise roughly 78 percent of the 1,255-member “club.” In most cases, it's overtime pay that pushes public-safety employees into the six-figure salary range.
Some online commenters, in turn, dug into the editorial, pointing out that not all overtime pay comes from the city's budget; and, they noted, isn't it cost-effective to pay overtime rather than hire more police officers and fire fighters?
“One way or the other, the shifts have to be covered,” said Maurice Luque, Fire Department spokesperson. Like other large metro areas, San Diego maintains what's considered the “safest” staffing level—four firefighters per truck. “It's $3 million annually less expensive to do it by paying overtime than having additional employees,” Luque said.
And San Diego participates in state and federal mutual-aid programs, sending firefighters to other regions to assist with disasters. For 2008, San Diego was reimbursed $4.2 million for out-of-area deployments, Luque said.
As for police, some overtime costs are covered by state and federal grants, said Executive Assistant Police Chief David Ramirez, like enhanced DUI and narcotics enforcement. Any time an officer works a special event—like the Gaslamp's annual Mardi Gras party—that work is done in excess of an officer's normal shift, Ramirez said, so as not to pull cops off the street.
The how and why of overtime “is not as simple as some people think it is,” Ramirez noted—a homicide team might be called in during off-time if there's a break in a case, or an officer who makes a late arrest during his or her shift will need to stay late to fill out arrest paperwork.
The San Diego Police Officers Association has been looking for ways the city can recover additional overtime costs, said SDPOA vice president Jeff Jordon, who estimates that the city is reimbursed only about half of what it costs to provide police staffing at special events. “The Chargers deal is just ludicrous,” he said. The team pays the city only for officers who work inside the stadium and, even then, only for two hours of a normally four-hour game.
Erica Mendelson, DeMaio's spokesperson, said the report doesn't take reimbursements into account. “Regardless, it's still taxpayer dollars,” she said. The councilmember's intention was to keep it simple and not dig into the complexities of overtime pay, Mendelson explained. As for whether DeMaio has ideas for whittling down $100K-club membership without jeopardizing public safety, Mendelson said he'll be rolling out a couple of reports shortly.
Rachel Laing, spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said overtime pay isn't an issue.
“The mayor and financial staff monitor overtime to ensure taxpayers are getting the best value,” she said, “and there are safeguards in place to ensure personnel can't ‘game' the system to increase their overtime hours.”