SAN RAMON (KPIX 5) — Despite ever-tightening budgets, hefty paydays are actually becoming the norm for a lot of Bay Area firefighters.
But one East Bay fire department says paying out a lot of overtime is actually saving taxpayers money.
In 2015, firefighters in San Ramon were making as much as $400,000 a year in total compensation.
A hard days work as a firefighter in San Ramon could be adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
According to data collected by the watchdog group, Transparent California, more than half of the San Ramon Valley Fire District full-time employees make more than $300,000 a year.
Jake Weir with the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association said, “Does it make sense that a battalion chief in San Ramon should earn $300,000…when our governor only earns $180,000…and our President only earns $400,000.”
But San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Paige Meyer says the $300,000 figure doesn’t tell the whole story.
It includes pension and benefits, so in reality, he says, firefighters take home about half of their total compensation.
“So if someone makes $1 we ending up spending .90 cents for their pension and we also have the costs of healthcare,” Meyer said.
So that’s why he says it can be cheaper to pay a firefighter overtime, rather than hire someone new — with an extra set of benefits costs.
“Saving can be upwards of 20 to 30 percent,” Meyer said.
Firefighters are guaranteed about 70 percent of their income after retirement in their 50s and in San Ramon, firefighters contribute close to 25 percent of their income to their pension.
Weir believes the system won’t work in the long run.
“It’s unreasonable, it’s unaffordable and most importantly from a taxpayer’s perspective and from the perspective of the firefighters: it’s unsustainable,” maintains Weir.
But Chief Meyer says San Ramon is an example of a fire district doing things right. They are in the black.
“We have a very sustainable system. We’re paying all of our unfunded liabilities. We’re actually one of the only agencies that I know of in the United States that pays extra toward our unfunded liabilities in retired, medical, and pension costs,” Meyer said.
Meyer also says a starting firefighter in San Ramon would make about $90,000 in salary alone.