Special Report: How a vicious circle of self-interest sank a California city.
Meanwhile, San Bernardino continued to boost wages along with benefits. The average salary for a full-time San Bernardino firefighter in 1997 was $75,610, adjusted for inflation into 2010 dollars. By 2010, it was nearly $147,000, according to a Reuters analysis of Census Bureau data.
City wages were a runaway train, according to the Management Partners report. The city charter automatically calculated police and firefighter pay using a formula linked to wages offered by comparably sized cities – most of which were much wealthier than San Bernardino. Efforts to amend the charter were strongly opposed by the safety unions and voted down by the council earlier this year.
City workers took advantage of compensation rules, common among public employees in California, that made retirement deals even better. Key to this was boosting an employee’s eve-of-retirement wages, which form the basis of the pension calculations.
Mike Conrad, chief of the fire department from 2006 to 2012, said he saw managers negotiate a promotion in their final year, to boost their final salary. It was not uncommon for someone to move into a position with a $30,000 annual pay rise shortly before retirement, he said.
Retiring employees are also able to extract big one-time “cash outs.” In San Bernardino, eight hours per month of unused sick time can be rolled over and saved year after year, without limit. Come retirement, 50 percent of the total can be taken in cash. The same goes for unused vacation time: up to 460 accrued hours of vacation – nearly three months of salary – can be cashed in at the fire department, Conrad said.