Heroes or Leeches? Debating Public Safety Wages

Jun 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: pensions, public safety

Over the last year, I’ve listened as certain council members and other Phoenix residents have claimed wages for our public safety workers are too high. I’ve read the letters to the editor lambasting pension benefits as well as the op-ed pieces claiming payroll is outrageously excessive. I find it all less than amusing and highly hypocritical.

First, it should be noted that city workers do not average $100,000 in pay as Councilman Sal DiCiccio continues to incorrectly state. Rather it’s $100,000 in wages and benefits… benefits such as health insurance, uniform allowance and retirement. Actual take home pay is much, much less. But the real question shouldn’t be what’s included in the total sum but rather why that sum is so offensive to certain council members and residents.

Public safety workers, who are the vast majority of city employees, deserve a respectable wage commensurate with the risks and demands of the job. Like doctors, they are charged with saving lives. Unlike doctors, they must put their own safety behind those they serve – the citizens of this city. And sometimes, they must give their own lives to save others.

When an officer or firefighter is killed in the line of duty, we come together to pay tribute to that sacrifice. We frequently hear stories from the media and from city officials about what a difficult and thankless job these public safety workers have and how they deserve our honor and respect.

Then, when it comes time to set budgets and determine how much we should pay these same workers, the story changes and the tone becomes harsh. Suddenly, our public safety workers are held up as overpaid employees who leech off taxpayers and should feel lucky to have a job.

How convenient it is to praise public servants after death or injury then chastise them while debating their worth in wages.

In yesterday’s Arizona Republic opinions section, Greg Houlihan writes a letter to the editor deriding the appointment of Bryan Jeffries, a Mesa firefighter and union president, to the Phoenix city council saying Mr. Jeffries will support unions rather than taxpayers. This of course assumes that unions want to stick it to the taxpayers and that it’s impossible to balance the rights of workers with the good of the city. But is that what’s been demonstrated lately? I think not.

Instead, Phoenix public safety unions agreed to across-the-board pay cuts combined with furlough days, all in an effort to help save jobs and save the city millions during our financial crisis. And due to recent state legislation, public safety employees will also be paying more toward pension benefits while employers pay less. That doesn’t sound like leeching to me. That sounds like sacrifice in the name of public good.

Mr. Jeffries offers a unique perspective to the council, one that’s been missing for far too long and one that should hopefully balance the false and misleading statements we’ve been hearing from some of the more vocal council members such as Mr. DiCiccio.

Our public safety workers should not be praised for their heroism one day then criticized for their expectation of a respectable wage the next. They deserve a voice at the table, and Councilman Jeffries deserves the opportunity to present it.

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7 Comments to “Heroes or Leeches? Debating Public Safety Wages”

  1. Richard Moore says:

    Julie Erfle has pointed out a long-standing injustice to public safety employees. Councilmen have long been quick to point out, (incorrectly), that public safety employees are paid more than they are when it comes to budget matters. While I am not a union supporter, I am well aware that unions representing public safety employees here in the valley have a history of supporting fiscal stands that are well within the budget restraints that government agencies strive to accomplish in times of need.

    No public service union here has blatantly gone to battle with those responsible for watching the public funds. As Erfle has pointed out, the normal tack taken by unions in the valley has been to hunker down and strive to recommend ways to get the payroll leaner without losing employees. Council members like DiCiccio do public service members, and the citizens a great disservice when they make claims to the contrary.

  2. Lou Carlucci says:

    And let us not forget that the smoke and mirrors individuals like DiCiccio are proposing and supporting is a “conservative” effort, nationally to break unions and take away collective bargaining at the front line levels. It’s easy for these folks, most of them much more well off than street cops and firefighters will ever be, to sit back and under the guise of “balancing the budget,” or “protecting the taxpayer’s money,” introduce legislation that will severely impact public pensions, but the real goal is to disable the unions. We have become such a nation of sheep to think that these union busters are doing this for the public benefit. And the media is so naive (trying to sell papers) that they fail to see the complete picture. The Arizona Republic stories were incomplete, inaccurate and biased. (Gee ya think?) But the authors managed to get their media awards. I believe that these conservative legislators will, in the near future, start to propose that private companies take over for public services. Fire departments across the country are already under fire from the deep pocketed private EMS and fire departments. Deep pockets. Hmm. Do you think these rich conservatives will cash in on that for their next election. Corruption begets corruption. You tell me.

  3. Jon Altmann says:

    I am a fiscal conservative Republican that contributed to and supported Councilman DiCiccio’s last election. I doubt I will do that again.
    As a long-time city participant that is concerned about fiscal policy, it is one thing to question the spending habits of the city and be a voice towards better strategic planning, it is another to trash my hometown and the diligent folks working for it. Some of them are my fellow Parishioners at my church. They are not public safety officers, they are just regular people working hard as city employees.
    I get it. I am a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief. As we would say, since I was not a commissioned officer, I worked for a living. My father and grandfather were career Federal civil servants. They worked hard for a very modest pension and salary. My grandfather lost two fingers helping build Navy ships. He never got rich working for the government. I give you he did give more than he got. Most government workers do.
    As someone who has “lead the troops” (Sailors), it is a cardinal first rule – never do anything to demoralize those you lead. I expect my City Council members to provide “council” that leads, not attack.
    Public employees are not the enemy – poor fiscal planning may be. Councilman DiCiccio voted on the same union pay plans he is now charging at trying to enrage J.Q. Voter. A book was written once on “Blaming the Victim” … it may be worthwhile reading for the Councilman.
    He’s supposed to be someone with an education and a background in big land development and business. Why isn’t the charge to put in quality improvement benchmarks or better strategic planning so looking out five fiscal years we have a plan to conserve funds and still have a great city?
    Big businesses that pay good salaries want to locate to cities that are safe, have decent transportation, have a supportive community and are people friendly. Councilman DiCiccio has been on the Council before. I’ve yet to see him put the same energy in finding a major corporation to come to Phoenix, bringing jobs and increasing our economy. The best he can do is rally a Tea Party slogans, anger and sound more conservative than a right wing Mississippi congressman. I am disappointed in the investment of my time, campaign contribution and energy that helped bring him back to office.
    I’d say I want my money back, but I doubt that’s a check he will write because he needs my money to keep up his campaign of hot rhetoric.
    In fact, if Councilman DiCiccio is so passionate about government employee pensions, then why doesn’t he write a check back to the City Treasury to give back all the elected officials pension benefits he’s getting for past and current service. That pension benefit is fatter than any benefit any Phoenix employee gets – heck, it’s better than what a wounded, disabled combat Marine gets!
    I served on the front lines of national defense in the intelligence community tracking bad guys who wanted to throw bombs at innocent Americans. Sadly, it seems I made a mistake and helped elect a bomb thrower to my City Council.

  4. Danny Schrader says:

    I would have to whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Altman above. If Mr. DiCiccio is so passionate about cutting pay and pensions, perhaps he should LEAD BY EXAMPLE and be the first of his ilk to take a paycut (our elected officials are supposed to be leaders, aren’t they?). I’ve never been accused of being a genius, however, it seems to me that if politicians lived by the codes, conduct and standards that they demand from others, this country’s political system wouldn’t be in the shambles that it is, and it’s quite possible that they wouldn’t be looked upon as criminals and hypocrites.

  5. I find the above arguments and responses far to one sided so I will weigh in with my thoughts just to make things a little more fair. First, public safety is not the majority of the city workers…it makes up about 33% but accounts for over 70% of the expense. Second, these first responders, while understandably sometimes put at risk, are voluntary positions and each occupant fully understood the risks assocaited with them. Additionally, while they do a good job for us, I have to ask why we have to talk with them through thier representatives of the unions they belong to? This countries true first responders who contribute to many of these city employees have no such union representation and get nothing near the benifits that our police and fireman get…yet they lay down their lives every day for all of us…who are they? Why the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. They have career employees too but still they get more, or less, what we in the private sector receive in pension benefits.

    You all poo poo the ‘benefit’ but it is those high flying pensions that will bankrupt your true employers…We the People! Unlike a corporation (which the unions have destroyed in this country…steel, auto, miscellaneous manufacturers, etc. etc….read “Job Killers” by Graham to see what I am talking about) the City can just assess the tax payer more taxes to pay these outlandish pensions. Not one priviate sector employee gets this type of benefit but they are all expected to keep a city worker comfortable in the life they have been accustom FOR LIFE! Don’t get me on the Firefighters…those that get paid to sleep more than they get paid to be awake. If it were not such a cream puff job, why does the line go all the way around the Convention Center when the city in interviewing for just a few firefighter jobs…give me a break…this is the best ‘non’ job on the planet…and we have to change that. Most communities are served by volunteer firefighters because fires are so very rare…our people just sit around, play basketball, go to Frys to shop for their dinner, etc. etc. and yes take those multi million dollar machines out on a simple car wreck every chance they get…and I do not blame them because I am sure it gets pretty boring just sitting around waiting for the bell to ring. When called upon, they perform above and beyond, but that is what we expect from them and that is what they signed up for…so do not give me that “woe is me” speach every time we the people question what we are paying you.

    Now as to Councilman DiCiccio…I am tired and offended at the way city workers (union members all) speak to and about him. After all, he is one of your bosses. He is our elected representative and when you disrespect him, you disrespect all of We the People. You are offended if we call you out but see nothing wrong and disrespecting your boss. In the corporate world, we have a Board of Directors…that is what the city Council is…there is no way that any employee would be tollerated speaking to any board member in that fashion that you union members feel you have a right to do to Mr. DiCiccio. You should be ashamed.

    This is not about personalities, it is about money and remember one thing…it is not your money, it is the Tax Payer’s money. All of the money you pay in taxes comes from the rest of the Tax Payers…so you are not quite equal here…you are an employee of the tax payer and I, for one, would appreciate it if you would conduct yourselves like it. Those that get their compensation from the Tax Payer as a ‘consultant’ or ‘contractor’ are likewise, in the same boat.

    Finally, you may condem Mr. DiCiccio but understand this…he has awakened this sleeping giant and the days of wine and roses for Public Service Employee Members are limited. The movement is not just here in Phoenix, it is all over the country because what you demand is just not sustainable. Better you should come to the table with ‘hat in hand’. I say, hats off to Councilman DiCiccio and the Tea Party Movement…we are all coming for you…next!

  6. [...] Phoenix City Charter, as Mr. Robb points out, limits the collective bargaining power of public employee unions, meaning public employee unions actually have less power than private employee unions. The Charter [...]

  7. [...] This past spring I wrote an article that spoke about that very issue. You can read it here. [...]

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