The frightening 1,000-foot oily plume rising from the Chevron refinery in Richmond in early August reminded Contra Costa residents of their reliance on firefighters when disaster strikes.
Yet, unlike the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when firefighters were heralded as heroes and the booming economy fueled rich pension increases, the recession's slow burn into local fire agency budgets has many taxpayers asking: How much is a firefighter worth?
Value is more than money, of course. Dollars, however, say a great deal.
A Contra Costa firefighter earned an average base pay of $54,900 to $88,800 last year. Add overtime, health insurance and pension benefits, and total compensation more than doubled -- from $125,200 to $191,244, depending on the employer.
In addition, firefighters in five of nine full-service Contra Costa fire departments are eligible for the top public safety worker pension formula offered in California.
"All public safety workers, not just firefighters, have made tremendous pay and benefit gains over the past 30 years (of union bargaining) that have added up to an expense the current revenue structure can't afford," said Stewart Gary, a national fire services consultant and retired chief of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department. "Now, we're beginning to see that process turn around and go in the opposite direction."
From Gov. Jerry Brown's pension reform legislative package unveiled last week and approved Friday by the Legislature, to San Diego and San Jose voters' overwhelming support this year for reductions in public employees' retirement benefits, the downward push on what government workers earn is gaining steam.
In June, voters in the East Contra Costa Fire District's area doused a $197-a-year fire parcel tax, leading to a shutdown of half of its six fire stations. Even though the agency's firefighters earn half as much as their peers do, residents cited excessive pay and pensions as a key objection.
An $8 million federal bailout announced last week will restore East County service, but the two-year grant will not solve the district's long-term fiscal crisis.
Next up, proponents of a $75 annual fire tax on the November ballot for the Contra Costa Fire District -- the county's largest -- realistically fear that public anger over firefighters' remuneration will extinguish their measure, too. Without the money, the district said it will have to shutter as many as 10 of its 28 stations.
"When you have 1,000 people applying for a firefighter job, it's a pretty good indication that you are paying above the market," said Kris Hunt, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.
Nonsense, countered Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters who worked 26 years as a firefighter with the Contra Costa Fire District.
"You don't crawl down a hallway into a smoke-filled room for the pension," he said. "You don't jump off the side of a cliff or down a canal to chop someone out of a car for the salary. ... If you really think that, come on down and we'll pull a line and let you try it."
An analysis of four key front-line fire suppression classifications -- firefighter, engineer, captain and battalion chief -- in eight Contra Costa fire agencies in the Bay Area News Group's 2011 public employee salary database, combined with additional research, reveals the following:
The cost for all that angers government hawks and confounds elected boards charged with running fire districts, but firefighters say they are frustrated by the public outrage aimed their way. Taxpayers think every firefighter collects identical benefits, they say. But the perks come with disparate costs depending on the labor contract.
The average San Ramon firefighter, for example, pays $11 for every $100 that his or her retirement costs the district. For the same benefit, the average Contra Costa Fire firefighter contributes $24.
"These pension costs affect us, too," said Contra Costa Fire captain and Local 1230 President Vince Wells, who puts a quarter of his paycheck each month toward his pension. "We're no different from anyone else. We have mortgages. We have families. We want to send our kids to college."
The costly contract perk at the heart of the dispute is often called "3 percent at 50." It means that an employee with 30 years of service can retire as early as age 50 and collect a pension based on 3 percent per year of his or her highest 12 months of salary. Cost of living increases for retirees vary by contract.
The advantageous formula was first awarded in 1999 when former Gov. Gray Davis cut a deal with the California Highway Patrol. Firefighters' unions throughout the state quickly moved to negotiate comparable plans. Contra Costa fire districts adopted the enhancements starting in 2002.
As a result, Contra Costa public safety workers at all ranks who retired in 2010 after 25 to 30 years of service collect an average retirement paycheck of $111,576 a year, ¿according to the county retirement association, which manages the pensions for four of the five districts with the enhanced benefits.
Bloated pension costs are not the only problem. The recession has sent property values -- and the taxes on which many fire districts depend -- spiraling downward. Pension fund investment returns followed suit.
Escalating medical costs and a change in the way the county's pension managers calculate retirement rates also have contributed to fire districts' fiscal woes.
No matter who is to blame, all nine full-service Contra Costa fire agencies have lost financial ground -- particularly special districts, which rely almost solely on property taxes. Cities fund their fire agencies from the general fund.
The agencies have shuttered seven stations since 2008, spent rainy-day funds, slashed capital budgets and left positions unfilled. Some have temporarily staved off deeper cuts with short-term federal grants.
"This crisis has grown from an ember into a blaze," said Contra Costa Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Mary Nejedly Piepho, whose husband, David, is an Alameda County firefighter. "We have a lack of resources and revenue to meet the public's expectations, let alone meet the current system of operations.
"It's not a new problem but we are now facing it front and center."
Even the affluent San Ramon Valley, where property values have declined at a far less severe rate than the ravaged eastern part of the county, has balanced its budget using reserves for the past five years. The district has been unable to secure concessions during fierce talks with its firefighters, whose contract expired last year.
"There is a fiscal cliff on the horizon," Chief Richard Price wrote in a stern letter to his board. "Continued dependence on the use of reserves to balance our budget has jeopardized the financial stability and service levels of our organization."
What happens next is an open question.
Brown's pension reforms are aimed primarily at state workers and, so far, courts have protected as inviolate vested employees' benefit levels. Yet, to many, ratcheting down public safety workers' benefits is inevitable, as bills for pensions and pay decisions made during boom economic times keep rolling in.
"Everyone respects the firefighters for the job they do and applauds their heroism," said Dan Pellissier, president of Californians for Pension Reform. "But that doesn't solve the fundamental math problem that those salaries and benefits are taking away from the same services they were hired to provide."
Contra Costa fire chiefs manage multimillion-dollar public agencies responsible for many lives and much property. Are they worth what taxpayers pay for their salaries, insurance and retirement? A sampling from the 2011 Bay Area News Group public employee salary database shows what they earned and the value of their benefits.
San Ramon Fire Chief Richard Price topped the Contra Costa list with a salary of $260,410. His benefits were worth an additional $175,011. (To save the district money, Price "retired" this year but remains on the payroll as chief for $1 a month. He worked in another Bay Area district for most of his career, where he draws most of his pension.)
Lagging in second place, Moraga-Orinda Chief Randy Bradley earned $204,754, while his benefits cost $79,397.
By comparison, the chiefs of the two largest fire districts in neighboring Alameda County collected pay and benefits comparable to the San Ramon and Moraga-Orinda leaders. Now-retired Alameda County Fire District Chief Sheldon Gilbert was paid $230,262 plus $94,692 in benefits. Then-Oakland Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann collected $210,980 in wages, and his benefits cost an additional $70,367.
Rounding out the middle of the Contra Costa pack were El Cerrito Fire Chief Lance Maples with a salary of $162,838 plus $92,132 in benefits; East Contra Costa Fire District Chief Hugh Henderson, with $138,232 in wages and $114,340 in benefits; and Contra Costa Fire District Chief Daryl Louder with $184,260 in wages plus $62,897 in benefits. Richmond Fire Chief Michael Banks was last at $185,325 in salary. His benefits cost $56,043.
Source: Bay Area News Group 2011 public employee salary database