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Jon Coupal- Columnist

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website]

Taxpayers Continue to Foot the Bill
For Local Government Incompetence...
[Jon Coupal]

Unfortunately for taxpayers, the city of Los Angeles often provides "coming attractions" for communities throughout California.

Los Angeles is a city that is admired and at the same time reviled throughout the state. As the center of the film and television industry, it creates its own glamorous image. But its media dominance and size have made it the tail that wags the dog in California politics.

With the city's power has come arrogance. After all, the city of Los Angeles has a foreign policy. City Council members would apparently prefer to decide our nation's policy on Iraq than to fix the numerous potholes in the streets.

Residents have become accustomed to City Hall's lack of attention to the nuts and bolts of government. This may explain why few were surprised when a recently released city report revealed that, due to their hefty overtime checks, more than half of the 100 highest-paid employees at Los Angeles City Hall work for the Fire Department. In some cases the overtime dwarfs salaries. The highest paid fire fighter received $86,718 in base pay last year and $137,775 in overtime, or a total of $224,493. In all, firefighters accounted for 56 of the top one hundred in pay. Mayor James Hahn, who is paid $179,700, ranked 90th. (Now some would argue that the average firefighter does more for the city than the mayor, but that's a subject for another time.)

Of course this is not a new situation, just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Council inaction. In 1997 a report by then city controller, Rick Tuttle, found that just 15% of the city's work force, especially firefighters, accounted for more than 80% of overtime pay.

Now, most taxpayers accept that well-trained public safety personal, who willingly put their lives on the line for the public, should be well paid. This is especially obvious given the devastating fires recently ravaging Southern California. But the real issue is what kind of management policies result in paying some personnel more than $100,000 in overtime?

A spokesman for the fire department revealed little grasp of the overtime issue by commenting that overtime should be made more equally available to all firefighters (implicitly conceding that overtime is a perk for those with seniority). Fortunately, at least one member of the City Council proved that she gets it. Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said she thinks the city needs to see whether it should have more firefighters and less overtime.

Although most people would not consider it "rocket science" to have to decide between continuing to pay fatigued workers expensive overtime, or hiring additional personal at the regular rate, for those in government, this is a challenging concept.

Whoever said that government produces nothing overlooked what government officials do best: they make excuses. The overtime is justified, officials say, because it is more expensive to train and employ a new worker. Huh? If thinking like this were valid, the city would never hire new personnel. Just let a handful of firefighters spend a lifetime working twenty-four, seven.

In reality, hiring new public safety workers is expensive because of the need to fund lavish pensions that in some cases let personnel retire with 90 percent of the their final year's salary after just 30 years of service. It is these public benefit packages that are coming close to bankrupting a number of local governments. Yet, in most cases, these obligations were approved by the same officials who now complain that hiring new workers is "too expensive." And it is these same officials who in Los Angeles have been providing "cost of living" pay increases to city workers at two and three time the rate of inflation. Is it any wonder that the Los Angeles City Council says that the city cannot afford to hire more firefighters or police?

The City Council is now studying the feasibility of a new tax for additional police. This means the Council wants to know if the public has figured out yet how its tax money has been frittered away, and if not, can enough voters can be scared into coughing up more to guarantee protection.

Sadly, these problems are not restricted to the big stage that is Los Angeles. To paraphrase the old movie industry promotion, they are coming soon to a community near you -- if they have not already arrived.


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