After the Fire Comes the Shakedown

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Readers who are angry that I would challenge the ongoing hero-worship of California firefighters ought to look at a few stories published this week in the Los Angeles Times. They are reminders that cops and firefighters have absolutely no shame in the way they use so-called public safety to shake down taxpayers for an ever-increasing amount of money.

It is beyond tacky, but firefighters and cops will use any tragedy to enrich themselves. We saw it after 9/11. Police and firefighters often made references to that tragedy as they ratcheted up their pay and benefits. Now California firefighters are gearing up to do the same thing following the wildfires.

In Friday’s Times, the main article in the California section is about various state and local officials urging the governor-elect to rescind his pledge to turn back a recent tripling of the state’s hated car tax. The rationale: "Officials say the increase helps fund firefighters, and the current crisis shows it is vital," according to the article. Next to the story is a column headlined: "Watching the car tax at work on fire lines." Here’s the sappy text: "Cops and firefighters are spread thinly enough, even without simultaneous disasters. And if Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps his vow to stamp out Gov. Gray Davis’ tripling of the car tax, they’ll have to go begging for alternative funding." This closely echoes the poormouthing coming from the official spokesman for the firefighters union.

Poor things. Perhaps the Times columnist should have asked whether the cops and firefighters are spread so thin because cities are spending so much money to pay for a 50-percent pension spike for public-safety workers the governor signed into law in 1999. The law allows municipalities to grant a "3 percent at 50" benefit giving cops and firemen 90-percent of their retirement pay at age 50, after working 30 years. It has spread across the state faster than the wildfires.

On Wednesday, Gov-reject Gray Davis — the transition has yet to take place to Gov-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger — signed two bills that will dramatically increase the pay and benefits to police union arm-twisters. (It only applies to police, but the firefighters can’t be far behind.) Even the notoriously liberal Times could not hide that these bills appear to be political payback to Davis’ top campaign contributors, and that they will no doubt impose significant burdens on localities.

Bill one is called deferred retirement. "The provision would allow law enforcement officers to u2018retire,’ but continue working for up to five years, collecting both a salary and a pension pay." What an unbelievable doubling-up of payments. It’s typical for cops in particular to earn six-figure salaries in California, so now they can live even larger at the public expense.

Of course, their officials justified this benefit on behalf of the dangerous job they do protecting public safety, blah, blah, blah. "On the same day, Davis approved another bill, SB 440, mandating that local governments abide by the ruling of an arbitration panel in police union disputes unless the local governing board votes unanimously to reject the arbitrators’ decision," wrote the Times. Here’s how a Davis spokesman justified the gift of public funds: "We are talking about people who protect us and put their lives on the line every day."

Mandatory arbitration has long been sought by cops for a simple reason:

They come before a city council or board of supervisors and make an outrageous salary or benefit demand. The officials come back with a reasonable offer, but then the union can sit it out knowing that the impasse will go before an arbitrator.

The arbitrator will no doubt split the difference, which means a recipe for never-ending salary and benefit increases. There’s no way any council or board will be unanimous in overturning the decision of the arbitrator. Cops are notoriously ham-fisted in their dealings with elected officials. Vote against them and they will seek your ouster. They will bluster, bully, and tell the public you are a foe of law enforcement.

Even conservatives can’t say no.

This week in Orange County, two supervisors tried — but failed — to mandate a simple audit of the publicly-funded health-care plan for sheriff’s deputies. The county was negotiating a new contract and wanted to know how the union-controlled health dollars were being used before adding more contributions. These are public dollars, after all.

This did not pass a completely Republican-controlled board. Two board members who refused to support the audit are generally considered to be conservatives. But the filing period is still open for the races they are entering, and they know better than to confront the sheriff’s union, which has made veiled and not-so-veiled political threats against anyone who dares to call for accountability.

Imagine how much harder it would be to stand up to these public-safety thugs in a county or city with a less-conservative majority. Or on a tougher issue. Not a chance that an arbitrator’s ruling will be overturned. Many cities are directly controlled by these unions anyway.

Police and firefighters endorse the candidates that are good on "public safety issues," but really they only support those candidates who agree to allow them to plunder the treasury.

Local cities are notorious at wasting money. And it is entertaining watching the interests of two government groups collide. But as always the taxpayer gets stuck with the tab.

I’ve had enough of this. Firefighters and police are bullies. They do a job that isn’t all that dangerous, despite their ceaseless whining and PR. They are paid excessively and receive excessive retirement benefits.

In my recent column I compared firefighters to my roofer. Actually, there is no moral equivalence. My roofer does the job without whining or complaining. He does the job without constantly trying to renegotiate the price. He does the job without trying to rob me, or make me feel guilty, or without threatening to take action against me if I don’t do things his way. He doesn’t use his risk or any tragedies to boost the price he charges me.

Which one seems more heroic in your eyes?

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.

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