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September 23rd, 2010
Commentary: Sifting the false from the true about police, firefighter pay

COMMENTARY by LAMAR W. HANKINS

With respect to firefighter and police pay, the parties directly affected have been trying to hide the truth from the taxpayers who pay their salaries.  For the last twenty years, I have represented many police officers in disputes with their chiefs of police in various communities in Central Texas.  When I was city attorney in San Marcos in the 1980s, I gave legal advice to the police department as much as to any other city department.  I don’t come at this issue of pay with a bias against such public service employees, but I do respect complete truthfulness.

As far as I can determine, here is the short version of what happened last year when the San Marcos firefighters and police won a significant new contract for salary and benefit increases.  One hundred fifty employees split $2.8 million over three years.  That is an average just under $19,000.  None of this money was for equipment, or training, or new hires.  It was all for salaries and benefits for existing employees. (Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 3, 2009, page B2.)

And they will be back for more in the near future.  Thus, it is important for them to have a city council made up of people who will give them the increases in salaries and benefits that they want.  San Marcos firefighters and police have become increasingly involved in the political process over the last twenty-five years.  Their PAC takes contributions from anyone.  Developer and political activist Terry Gilmore gave them and others thousands of dollars to try to defeat John Thomaides.

Now, one of their own, former San Marcos police officer Rodney Van Oudekerke is running for city council.  It is unlikely he will vote against his old friends and colleagues.  Daniel Guerrero, running for mayor, has thrown in his lot with the firefighters and police.  It is no wonder that he has done so since he has relatives among those groups.

Now, I have learned that the organization Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) is coming to town to work to defeat John Thomaides in his bid for mayor because Thomaides will not be a rubber stamp for what the police and firefighters want, which is more money from the taxpayers.

If the best argument you can make is that they have dangerous jobs and deserve everything they ask for, I’ll remind readers what I wrote about this issue last December:  “The recognition of the danger of the jobs of police officers and firefighters gives other city employees a good argument to make in favor of similar increases in their pay.  During the 25 years I have lived in San Marcos, I don’t recall that a single police officer or firefighter has been killed in the line of duty.  However, I do remember that around 1988 a Public Works Department employee driving heavy equipment across what is now the intersection of MLK and Guadalupe was killed when a tractor-trailer rig hit him.  And we all know that animal control employees have to deal with vicious dogs and even wild animals on occasion.”

I have grown tired of hearing the emotional argument about the extraordinary danger of their jobs because the facts don’t support that view.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, the most dangerous jobs based on their fatality rates are fishers, timber cutters, airplane pilots, structural metal workers, taxicab drivers, construction laborers, roofers, electric power installers, truckdrivers, farm workers.  Then we find the police in eleventh place.  I do not mean to denigrate the dangerousness of their jobs, but that dangerousness needs to be put into perspective.  There are other city employees with more dangerous jobs who are not paid nearly as well.

But there is another aspect to this situation that hasn’t been discussed publicly.  It is fear and intimidation.  When the largest association of police in Texas is named CLEAT, that should give you pause.  I have been cleated and I know how it feels.  Talk to your friends, is there anyone who doesn’t react with some version of fear when police lights go off in their rearview mirror?  When a phalanx of police and firefighters appear at city council meetings in uniform, many with their arms crossed in a belligerent pose, is the purpose benign?  Or is it to send a message to the people on the dais that they better take notice and vote the right way?  The police and firefighters have a psychological advantage and they know it.

Police particularly are intimidating.  Many people in San Marcos–law-abiding, good people–are afraid of the police.  Some of that fear grows from the guns and batons and tasers and mace they carry around their waists.  Some of the fear comes from the incidents of police violence directed toward people in the city.  One video I viewed repeatedly, showed an officer violently pushing a much smaller, unarmed female civilian with a baton just to make her back up.  The push was so hard, she fell backward and caught herself on the edge of a concrete stair abutment.  She may have been intoxicated (though she wasn’t arrested for any offense to my knowledge), but the behavior of the officer appeared bullying to me.  When police officers administer such “street justice,” it can lead to fear by many citizens.

When A.C. Gonzales was City Manager in the 1980s, he wanted to cross-train firefighters for either EMT or police positions, but was rebuffed constantly in his efforts.  From his perspective as city manager, firefighters did not have enough work to keep them busy much of the time.  Firefighters have a lot of sitting around time when they are not cleaning equipment, training, weightlifting, eating, and sleeping, waiting for a fire call.  Due to their work schedules–firefighters are on duty 24 hours and then are off 48 hours–they have a lot of time for pursuing other activities.  Many of them have started businesses to add to their incomes when they are off: gutter installation, lawn maintenance, landscaping, painting, etc.  I am not suggesting there is anything wrong about this.  In fact, I applaud their initiative.  My point is that they have much better than average job schedules and pay that give the kind of flexibility and opportunity most workers do not have.

The police and firefighters are coming close to taking over the politics of San Marcos.  Only two people stood up to their exorbitant salary and benefit demands last year.  One of those people is retiring from the council.  The police and firefighters have targeted the other one for defeat.  Only the voters can stop the domination of the public interest of all taxpayers by 150 people.  In our system, the citizens are supposed to be supreme, not the special interests.  In this election, we will see just how upside down our local democracy has become.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Local Government Watch–San Marcos

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16 thoughts on “Commentary: Sifting the false from the true about police, firefighter pay

  1. What is the name of the PAC that the San Marcos Police Officers give to? What is the name of the PAC the San Marcos Fire Fighters give to?

  2. San Marcos Professional Fire Fighters Association Political Action Committee is one. There is the CLEAT PAC. There are several FOP PACs around. There are numerous other law enforcement initiated PACs in Texas. All of these can funnel money into whatever races they are interested in. I don’t know which ones are given to by San Marcos police officers or firefighters. If the contribution is below the reportable amount, no names have to be reported.

  3. Not everyone will qualify for all of the money that is set aside. At the end of 3 years the money will go back to the general fund to be rebudgeted. This is making the numbers if your side’s argument and stir the pot. This was addressed in another comment on a different post. I don’t have the energy to explain it again. Don’t be fooled people go find out for yourself. Don’t let people put words in your mouth.

  4. What are the right numbers then? It’s impossible to predict who will qualify for what, or less would be budgeted. It may be advantageous for one side to cite the full amount, but I don’t know what other number they could use.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with the numbers, even if everyone gets the full amount. I do question whether we can afford it. I suspect there are millions of people who were paid less than they deserve this year.

  5. “Daniel Guerrero, running for mayor, has thrown in his lot with the firefighters and police”-

    Lamar, are you saying this because they have endorsed him (at least I think they have)? Maybe they endorsed him because he accepted an invitation to come and make a presentation to their membership. John refused. Did not even have the guts to go and talk to the men and women he wants to lead/manage. If he feels strongly about his position on the contract (which he obviously does), stand up like a man and say it. Not in the paper, not on phone opinion polls, not on push cards, not in adds. Say it in person to the people you are talking about. It is as simple as “here is what I believe, here is why I believe it, I want to work together in the future, thank you for your time.” They will have much more respect for you doing that, even if they disagree with you.

    Not that I needed any more reasons for myself, my family and my friends to not support John….

    Lamar, on a side note, why don’t you write about what the City got out of the contract?

  6. I thought I did write about that. The City got a huge financial obligation that it cannot afford if spread to all city employees. The size of the pay and benefit increases to the police and firefighters is not fiscally responsible, something most politicians don’t care about if they can get votes for their largesse spending taxpayer money. It’s an old story, writ larger at the state and federal levels. However, on the “silver lining” side of the equation, the staff turnover in both the police and fire departments is very low. But giving more money is not the only way to achieve low turnover rates. Research has shown that working conditions and employee relations are more important factors.

    My bottom line is that I don’t want the police and firefighters running this city. I want responsible adults, unbeholden to special interests, to be looking after and spending the taxpayers’ money. That’s not what we have now.

    On the fact that Thomaides did not appear before your group to seek its endorsement, I have no way of knowing, but it did occur to me that he might have decided that he had about as much chance of receiving your endorsement as would an ice cube in hell of not melting.

  7. I want to add a comment about fairness. All of us learn at an early age that the world is not fair. But I have spent my adult life trying to bring a little more fairness (and also compassion) to the world. I have failed miserably, I know, but that does not keep me from doing what I can to create a fairer world.

    Treating the police and firefighters in such a generous fashion is unfair to all of the other city employees–about 367 people–some of whom have more dangerous jobs that do the police and firefighters. It is unfair because all of these other city employees are not organized to demand the same level of increases in their salaries and benefits. They can be blamed for not organizing themselves into a political organization that can influence city elections and improve their own pay and benefits.

    But whatever the failings of the 71% of city employees who are not organized into a political force, it remains unfair to treat one group of city employees differently from another. That different treatment is purely a political calculation by five members of the city council. There is a serious fiscal analysis that suggests that the city could not afford to be so generous with all city employes without steep increases in taxes. That’s why the demands of the police and firefighters seem unfair to me.

  8. “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Benjamin Franklin

  9. Those who are better with numbers, let me know the figures on this.
    Taking a TI-35 Calculator, I took $1,800,000(value in paper of police contract)divided that number by the “95 sworn officers” in the paper,and got $18,947.37 rounded up. I then divided that number by three(3)years for the average per year “raise”. I got $6,315.79.
    Six thousand a year is a generous raise no doubt.

    I then took an average state(hill) employee,$60,000 salary, put in a 3% COLA increase a year, and got $1800 year one, $1854 year two, $1910 year three, for a total of $5,564 three year raise.

    Fellow bloggers, are these numbers off? What do you guys think about the headlines.

  10. Lamar, were you the one who used to be the city attorney? I wonder why you are so bitter? Maybe because you WERE the city attorney.

  11. To Michael Potter:

    I think I said in my opening paragraph that I had been city attorney in the 1980s. I don’t know what makes you think I am bitter. I am just looking at the facts as best I can and laying them out for others to consider. That does not indicate bitterness on my part. My attitude is usually amiable, happy, and thankful. Just the opposite of your word.

  12. Not all of the money budgeted will be spent. Not everyone is going to qualify for every dollar that is budgeted. At 44,000 a year with 0, 1.25, and .1.75 percents over three years plus a masters degree, language, and having to work nights I bet comes out in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 12,000 over 3 years. I will have to put a pencil to it but it won’t be far off.

    Budget projections are done as a worst case. I got news for you the entire city budget is over budgeted this way. How do you think the city council finds money in the middle of the year for a council members special project.

  13. I might have missed this, but how do salaries compare to similar communities in our area? I see that the retention rates are high and turnover is low. Was that before the salary increases also? It is disturbing that nothing goes for recruitment or new hires. I went to the CONA debate, I could not tell a great difference between Shane Scott and Rodney. I will continue to go to debates to tease out the differences but it seemed like I was looking at some folks who weren’t particularly passionate or knowledgeable about city government and its issues.

  14. Whoops I found my answer by reading an earlier article by Lamar Hankins. He states they are paid above average. The firefighters say they are bringing their salary up the median pay of a sample of departments. I suppose the difference is between the median and the mean? Are the two sides using different samples? I read an editorial recently by David Brooks, a thoughtful conservative, in which he stated that California’s problem stems from unbridled unions. I think it is worth considering. I also think people have stopped seeing the “me” in government. We seem to think it is all them and don’t want to pay for them and their needs. We have this great university with applied areas of study like forensics and criminal justice and education. It would be great to see some academic experts come work with some of our county, state, and local officers to make us a model community to improve response times on the edges of city limits, improve interactions with officers and citizens of different cultures, mental health stati, and communication methods. Do we have some officers fluent in sign language? I can tell you that direction in that area will not come from the candidates for city council.

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