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In its heyday San Bernardino was a city of well-tended, modest family homes. One of today’s nice neighborhoods on the north side of town. (James Fallows)
Yesterday I kicked off our coverage of central Oregon’s post-timber-industry prospects with a piece about the way an innovative community college had tried to fill gaps left by the absence of a four-year university. Today Deb Fallows has a piece about the similarly innovative Redmond Proficiency Academy.

For now, a further look at one of our recently chronicled sites, the troubled and still-bankrupt city of San Bernardino, in the Inland Empire of Southern California. In the posts collected here, I argued that beyond the city’s numerous purely economic problems, it had a severe political liability. That liability was a form of city government virtually unique in the country, which made it very difficult for a struggling community to use its limited resources where they were needed most.

The most dramatic symptom of this imbalance, as I pointed out, was a system for setting police and fire-department salaries by automatically indexing them to levels in other cities, all of which were much richer. Thus, as analysts from George Mason University pointed out in a study of San Bernardino’s predicament, the taxpayers of California’s poorest major city paid some of the highest public-safety salaries in the state. If the city had zeroed out all other functions except police and fire payments, it would still have run a budget deficit. [Update: Ryan Hagen of the San Bernardino Sun has suggested that this arresting comparison from the GMU study may not be accurate. The larger point is that the city has significant budget problems, of which public-safety spending is a significant part.]

A reader whom I know to be a San Bernardino fire fighter, but who did not identify himself that way in his note, wrote to complain that my account of the situation had not been “thorough.” I wrote back saying that if he had specific corrections or rebuttals to offer, I’d be happy to share them. He has now passed on an extensive message from another San Bernardino fire fighter named Ken Konior.

As promised, I’m quoting much of Mr. Konior’s message below. Specifically I am quoting the parts that deal with public-employee pay. I’m leaving out the extensive passages that amount to criticism of the character, record, motives, and allies of former San Bernardino mayor (and former judge) Pat Morris, whom I have mentioned before and who figured prominently in the LA Times’s recent piece on the city.  

Before, during, and after his time as mayor Morris was a strong proponent of changing the city charter so as to bring public-safety pay levels under control. The police and fire fighters very much dislike him, as many of Morris’s allies have disliked the main politician on the other side. That politician is James Penman, who served as the elected city attorney for a total of 26 years until he was removed in a recall election two years ago. I have not published any criticisms of him, either, and I’m deliberately not getting into Morris-v-Penman criticisms so as to concentrate on the arguments for and against the San Bernardino system.

I turn things over to Ken Konior of the San Bernardino fire department. At the end of his note, I’ll append another, shorter, very different recent message from a young native of the city. Mr. Konior writes:

Presently, one narrative of the San Bernardino Bankruptcy exists in the mainstream media. This narrative was engineered by the [Pat] Morris administration and his supporters. The San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters did not politically support Mayor Morris or any members of his voting faction…. [JF note: Here I am leaving out many accusations of financial profligacy by Mayor Morris.]

The Morris faction claims Firefighters’ total compensation is abnormally high and caused the City’s bankruptcy.

The City published “Fully Burdened” costs including retirement contributions, unemployment insurance, Medicare contributions, health insurance stipends, skill and educational incentive pay, reimbursed overtime pay and mandatory back-fill pay etc. They fail to specify this in an attempt to mislead the public into thinking they are representing actual take-home pay.

On an hourly basis Firefighters make between $22 and $29 per hour; Firefighter/Paramedics make between $27 and $33 per hour, Fire Engineers make $32 per hour and Fire Captains make $37.50 per hour. These rates are middle average for like sized cities in California and high average for local cities. [JF note: the index is indeed based on like sized cities in California, but with very different tax bases.]

When looking at total compensation (salary, benefits and retirement), San Bernardino City Fire Department ranks average to low average compared to local fire departments. This was confirmed by Management Partners and is referenced in the Recovery Plan. [JF note: Management Partners is the consulting firm that has worked on the city’s post-bankruptcy recovery plan. You can read about its studies, and read the plan itself, here.]

The City claims that San Bernardino Police and Firefighters’ receive benefits that are $6.9 million less than the average of surrounding cities. They are also subject to a 14% imposed concession deducted from their hourly pay, bringing their total compensation even lower than the average for surrounding local cities.

When firefighters work over 182 hours in a 24-day period, they are paid at time-and-a- half rates (as required by federal FLSA laws). So when the City puts out the “total compensation” numbers, one must ask how many hours an employee had to work, at the above rates, to earn that much annually.

As a comparison, a licensed plumber or electrician earns anywhere between $30 and $50 per hour, they just don’t work the same number of hours that a firefighter is required to.

The city claims Section 186 should be repealed in favor of collective bargaining. [JF note: Section 186 is the automatic-indexing provision, which ties San Bernardino public-safety pay to the average of 10 other cities, all of which are richer.] City Charter 186 was enacted in 1955, by a citizen group, because the city refused to pay police and fire average market wages resulting in excessive turnover, corruption in the PD and poor public safety services compared to other local cities. The city has not engaged in good faith collective bargaining for the last decade resulting in costly litigation and continued adversarial politics.

In the summer of 2012 when the city first declared fiscal emergency, with the threat of insolvency and impending bankruptcy, the unions were skeptical.  At the time the city and the public safety unions were in the final stages of annual labor negotiations. The previous year the city imposed a 10% concession and then turned around and used the savings to start a new pet project, the Call Center.

The year prior to that, when the city supposedly fell on hard times, interim city manager Mark Weinberg approached the Firefighters’ Union, requesting a voluntary pay concession in the amount of 10% for the fiscal year. He presented his case at the time and requested our financial assistance to help the city because the housing bubble had just burst, the recession was just beginning and the city was low on funds.  He presented written documentation outlining the terms and the membership voted to give the concession in good faith.

The city then turned around and imposed a different version that they know we would never agree to. It turns out that it was just a ploy, to use SBCPF as an example to get the other bargaining groups to accept concessions. Expensive litigation ensued and the relationship between the public safety bargaining groups and the city management became hostile.

The city then turned around and lied to the other bargaining groups telling them that the city was in financial trouble because the Firefighter’s Union refused to give concessions, when in fact, SBCPF was the first to agree to them. In the mean time secret deals were struck behind closed doors, giving sweetheart deals to some of the management groups in exchange for political support in the upcoming elections (Fire Admin Group). This created feelings of betrayal and hostility, between the employees, and the various bargaining groups themselves. All the while, the media was compliant with City Hall and only printed spoon fed stories that offered one perspective…

All subsequent negotiations would be handled by outside consultants that the city would hire at great expense. They would go through the motions but ultimately never negotiate and just impose whatever the city wanted illegally. By hiring outside consultants, the city was attempting to insulate itself from litigation but it didn’t work. More time and money was wasted and the relationship deteriorated further.  All of this time the city would take employees compensation and continue on with pet projects and most of the savings ended up being spent on litigation, which the city was loosing.

Subsequent election cycles resulted in increased involvement and influence of the Public Safety groups resulting in changes to the voting bias of the Council. This was done out of desperation and frustration with the perceived toxic and dishonest tactics being utilized by City Hall. Nobody realized at the time, just how poorly the finances had been handled and how close the city was to realistic financial ruin.

The intent of the Recall Election of 2013 was to neutralize all political opponents of former Mayor Patrick Morris [JF note: this is the election in which James Penman was recalled], primarily the public safety unions. Deceptive tactics were utilized and no one was held accountable. The media continues to look the other way. [JF note: I am leaving out a detailed list of complaints about conduct of the recall election.]

These are just a few examples of the financial mismanagement, corruption and leadership failures the mainstream media refuses to investigate or report on.

If you are interested in the details of the city’s predicament and its path forward, by all means consider Mr. Konior’s points; compare them with the analyses from George Mason or in the city’s own recovery plan; and judge for yourself.

Meanwhile, also consider a note from a young woman who grew up in San Bernardino, went east to college, and is now working in Washington D.C.  She writes:

As a native of San Bernardino, California, I very well know what the  city is like and the struggles it faces. I grew up in the downtown area, near the Mount Vernon bridge. For much of my time growing up there, I was (like many my age) too afraid and too discouraged to speak out and try and make a difference to salvage what little remained of my city.

For kids like me, our solution was to grow up and get out of San Bernardino. And that is what I did. I went on to attend Georgetown University, and am now settled in Washington DC working away at my new job. Surprisingly though, I pay more attention now to my hometown than ever before. I assumed that by leaving the city I would not look back, but that is not the case.

I am very grateful that there are [people] who care enough about my desolate city to address it and give me hope. This makes people like me turn around and start caring again,  if not more so, about my home. It is not at all the perfect city, but it is an endearing one. Thank you for respecting my city and not giving up on it.