ENCINITAS — The City Council approved a memorandum of understanding with the firefighters’ union on Feb. 22.The new agreement was set to be voted on as an item in the consent calendar as part of a list of daily housekeeping items but was pulled by a member of the public for discussion.The council voted 4-0, with councilman Mark Muir absent, to approve a second tier retirement system whereby new hires after July 1 would begin paying the full 9 percent pension contribution cost.The contract allows for pension contribution costs to be phased in over three years at 3 percent each year. The city currently pays the entire pension liability.Firefighters will see an actual raise in wages of 2.75 percent in the fourth and final year of the contract. The last raise was in 2009.The city currently employs 44 firefighters, with one vacancy. The average base salary is $84,484 per year. A 2010 public record of municipal employees shows that many of the city’s top paid employees were in the fire department, including then Fire Chief Muir whose salary was $173,327.
“Retirement is the most significant component of this agreement,” city Human Resources Director Tom Beckford told the council. “The employees’ pay stays about the same.”
The contract also changes the basis for pension calculation to the highest salary averaged over 36 months, rather than 12 months.
Tony Kranz, a Leucadia resident told the council that more detailed information should have been available to the public. “This is a very complex subject, especially with respect to retirement,” he said. “You really haven’t spelled it out to the public.”
“It’s still not time to give them a raise,” Kranz said. “There’s still the same liability to the community.” While Kranz said he supported and applauded firefighters, he disagreed that the savings were as high as anticipated. “We have an unfunded liability that’s going to bite us in the end,” he said, referring to the cost of pensions.
“There are unfunded liabilities in the PERS (retirement) system,” Beckford said. “This MOU helps with future unfunded liabilities.”
“We’re just a flea on the whole dog,” Beckford said, referring to the employee retirement system.
Donna Westbrook, an Encinitas resident questioned the methodology of calculating the savings to the city. Beckford told the council that the projected savings of approximately $1.3 million came from a number of factors.
“I think this has been a contract that has been good for the firefighters and the city,” Councilman Jim Bond said. “We don’t punish the firefighters and there’s no cost to the city.”
Councilwoman Teresa Barth said she could not support the actual contract. While her stepson is a firefighter in Los Angeles County, and she respects the work of first responders, she said the city had more pressing financial considerations.
“We’re faced with a lot of difficult decisions up here,” she said.
In light of the national economic situation and the high number of capital improvement projects in the city’s pipeline, the contract did not provide enough short-term realization of funds to gain Barth’s support.
The contract passed 3-1, with Barth opposed and Muir absent.