by HOWIE MINOR
One of a city’s greatest responsibilities is to ensure the public safety through essential services such as the fire department. As the events of 9/11 so clearly demonstrated, firefighters risk their lives on a daily basis to protect our citizens.
The key to maintaining a top-quality fire department is recruiting and retaining skilled firefighters with a passion for their work. This can only be done when salaries are competitive and firefighters can trust their city government.
In my 20 years as a San Marcos firefighter, I have never questioned the loyalty of any city official toward firefighters. However, my fellow firefighters and I are greatly troubled by the recent statements of former councilman and mayoral candidate John Thomaides.
In interviews and advertising, Mr. Thomaides attacks the current salaries of firefighters and the process through which they were set. These attacks are factually inaccurate and deserve correction.
Prior to the current budget year, the city council unanimously established a new process for setting salaries in the fire department called “meet and confer.”
Under meet and confer, the city council budgets a set amount of money for firefighter salaries and the firefighters association structures its salaries within that budget.
As a councilman, Mr. Thomaides supported the amount that the city council budgeted for fire department salaries. Now, as a mayoral candidate, he is attacking the salaries as too high.
To set the record straight, our association structured its salaries based on a study of ten peer cities. We made our salary for a position equal to the median salary for the same position across these ten cities.
Because our firefighters had been paid less than the ten-city median, they were awarded an average annual raise of 1.5 percent over the next three years (0% in year one, and 2.25 percent in years two and three), and adjustments were made to longevity pay.
Mr. Thomaides wrongly claims that firefighters will receive an average raise of $19,500. This is false and based on a misreading of the city budget.
The cost of maintaining a fire department increases every year because we have a growing city. Last year, the city council created nine new positions in the fire department and restructured some of the department’s ranks.
Mr. Thomaides would have you believe that the increased expense of running the fire department is due solely to pay raises in the new contract. This is simply not true.
Firefighters should not be treated like straw men by a political campaign. By doing so, Mr. Thomaides is impairing the trust between firefighters and their city government. When that happens, we risk losing our best and most skilled firefighters to other cities that treat firefighters with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and the quality of our department suffers.
That is not a matter of politics. That is a matter of lives, and a risk that our city cannot afford.
HOWIE MINOR is a 20-year veteran of the San Marcos Fire Department and the San Marcos Firefighters Association president.