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New Hires Could Be Seeing Smaller Paychecks

New Hires Could Be Seeing Smaller Paychecks

San Jose Mercury News via YellowBrix

July 11, 2011

SAN CARLOS, CA – Four of five San Carlos City Council members said this week they are open to dropping the pay of new firefighters by as much as 10 percent to increase the city’s savings when it forms a new fire department in October.

If the council decides at its Monday meeting to pay new firefighters that much less than what current employees of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department earn, their annual base salaries would average $82,788, among the lowest on the Peninsula.

Mayor Andy Klein, Vice Mayor Matt Grocott and council members Randy Royce and Bob Grassilli told The Daily News they are willing to go there, particularly if they continue a practice that allows firefighters to collect some overtime while sleeping on their shifts.

Council Member Brad Lewis did not respond to requests for comment.

In May, the council voted to pay firefighters 5 percent less when the city forms a new “hybrid” fire department that will be managed by Redwood City fire officials.

At the time, however, the council also voted to save additional funds by paying firefighters straight hourly pay for overtime accumulated after more than 242.5 hours within a 28-day schedule. City staff estimated that move would save at least $150,000.

But at its June 27 meeting, the council voted 3-2, with Klein and Royce dissenting, to leave the overtime rule alone after all. As a result, firefighters will get paid time-and-a-half overtime when they work more than 242.5 hours within a 28-day schedule, whether asleep or not.

Grocott noted that all other fire agencies count sleep time toward overtime.

“You have to be mindful that sleeping in a firehouse bunk in clothing, ready to put on your turnout gear at a moment’s notice, is not the same as sleeping at home,” he said.

As a result, San Carlos would save only about $950,000 a year by having Redwood City run the new fire department and paying firefighters 5 percent less. The city had hoped to save at least $1.1 million to justify breaking up its joint fire department with Belmont, whose refusal to pay a bigger share of the operation’s cost prompted San Carlos to go its own way.

To realize the original savings goal, council members indicated they’ll now consider dropping new firefighters’ base salaries beyond the 5 percent already approved.

A 5 percent reduction would drop a firefighter’s average base salary to $87,384 and a 10 percent cut to $82,788, which is what Belmont decided to pay its new firefighters. That would be lower than what Foster City, Pacifica, Millbrae, San Mateo and Redwood City pay.

The only other comparable agency with a lower salary would be the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which pays its firefighters $68,808 a year, according to a city staff memo.

Grassilli said he’s wary about dropping salaries so low that current Belmont-San Carlos firefighters might not apply to work for the new department.

“We don’t have to be the highest price, but I want to make sure we’re competitive so we can draw some people that will stay with us,” he said.

The city last month began accepting applications for 17 to 21 positions at its new fire department and received 500 within the first two hours of posting the jobs.

Klein said he could support cutting salaries but also would like to revisit the overtime issue.

“I definitely think we have to find the savings somewhere,” Klein said.