San Bernardino is a poor city about 50 miles east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire — a place where a $50,000 salary would be typical and where home prices are nowhere near what they are in fancier areas of coastal Southern California. Yet the bankrupt city is trying desperately to unload some of its outlandish contracts with public employees, especially with the firefighters’ union. “San Bernardino, California, said that to exit bankruptcy it must terminate a union contract that pays an average annual salary of $190,000 to each of its top 40 firefighters,” according to an article in Bloomberg. That’s just salary. Firefighters receive the generous “3 percent at 50″ retirement package that allows them to retire with 90 percent of their final years’ pay at age 50. And there are lots of pension-spiking gimmicks and other benefits on top of that.
As the article notes, because of a voter initiative it may not be legal to dump those contracts. And I’ve looked at a city salary schedule, and the salaries are almost unbelievable throughout the city. City officials blame the economic downturn and the popping real-estate bubble for their financial plight. But that’s like saying that a salary cutback is the cause of an individual’s personal bankruptcy — never mind the Maserati in the garage, the trips to Hawaii, the diamond rings and the $200 nightly bottles of wine.
San Bernardino is in a financial fix that other California cities have mostly avoided, but the level of public-employee enrichment there is typical. These cities are run for the benefit of those who work there. Public services are a side matter at best. Two-thirds of the nation’s firefighters do this job for free, as volunteers. In what world is making them millionaires (when you add in their retirement benefits) a sensible idea? As usual, the city’s residents will pay the price in the form of reduced services. In Stockton and Vallejo, where similar salaries are common, residents also got hit with increased taxes. There’s something vulgar about hitting poor residents with higher taxes to pay for the city’s wealthy elite. And I hear no progressive voices complaining.