Firefighter pay shows why San Bernardino is bankrupt

San Bernardino is a poor city about 50 miles east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire — a place where a $50,000 salary would be typical and where home prices are nowhere near what they are in fancier areas of coastal Southern California. Yet the bankrupt city is trying desperately to unload some of its outlandish contracts with public employees, especially with the firefighters’ union. “San Bernardino, California, said that to exit bankruptcy it must terminate a union contract that pays an average annual salary of $190,000 to each of its top 40 firefighters,” according to an article in Bloomberg. That’s just salary. Firefighters receive the generous “3 percent at 50″ retirement package that allows them to retire with 90 percent of their final years’ pay at age 50. And there are lots of pension-spiking gimmicks and other benefits on top of that.

As the article notes, because of a voter initiative it may not be legal to dump those contracts. And I’ve looked at a city salary schedule, and the salaries are almost unbelievable throughout the city. City officials blame the economic downturn and the popping real-estate bubble for their financial plight. But that’s like saying that a salary cutback is the cause of an individual’s personal bankruptcy — never mind the Maserati in the garage, the trips to Hawaii, the diamond rings and the $200 nightly bottles of wine.

San Bernardino is in a financial fix that other California cities have mostly avoided, but the level of public-employee enrichment there is typical. These cities are run for the benefit of those who work there. Public services are a side matter at best. Two-thirds of the nation’s firefighters do this job for free, as volunteers. In what world is making them millionaires (when you add in their retirement benefits) a sensible idea? As usual, the city’s residents will pay the price in the form of reduced services. In Stockton and Vallejo, where similar salaries are common, residents also got hit with increased taxes. There’s something vulgar about hitting poor residents with higher taxes to pay for the city’s wealthy elite. And I hear no progressive voices complaining.

Comments (23) Add yours ↓
  1. Tough Love

    “Vulgar”, is putting it mildly. Far more nasty (but appropriate) words come to mind.

    June 25, 2014 Reply
  2. Kevinn

    Who paid for this one sided article of lies?!

    June 25, 2014 Reply
    • Tough Love


      Dollars to donuts you are a Public Sector worker riding this Public Sector pension & benefit “pig-fest” and don’t want it derailed.

      June 25, 2014 Reply
    • ward

      No one paid for lies, the article presents facts with analysis. Kevinn the facts and analysis is that we should have become San Bernardino Firefighters! The easy path to wealth today…a CA firefighter!

      June 25, 2014 Reply
  3. Jason

    What an embarrassment this article is for the author. It is filled with misquotes, over-exaggerations, and hate. The base salary of a San Bernardino firefighter is nowhere near this level. If their income is even close, it is because they are working double or triple the hours of the average worker, but it is not. I wouldn’t take anything else this author publishes seriously. Is he saying San Bernardino city firefighters spend $4000 a month each on wine? Maseratis? Seriously? The authors lack of professionalism and common sense is exceeded only by his lack of professionalism and common sense.

    June 25, 2014 Reply
    • Tough Love

      So when do you next report for YOUR Public Sector job …. you know, the one with the grossly excessive Taxpayer-funded pension & benefits …. that the Taxpayers are DETERMINED to renege upon (BIG TIME) ?

      June 26, 2014 Reply
    • Dennis

      Jason, you must work for government or union. Article is pretty spot on. I work in a profession where I have the written word of firefighter, and the examples Steve has given are accurate. Only difference was it was not San Bernardino, but in close proximity.

      September 17, 2014 Reply
  4. Kevinn

    I am so sorry for my stupid comment. It was a spot on article, and those firefighters are nothing but high school educated employees who should be at a market salary of $40K max.

    June 25, 2014 Reply
    • Tough Love

      No, but $60-$70K with pensions and benefits NO GREATER than that of the typical Private Sector Taxpayer (with comparable pay) IS INDEED what would would be reasonable, fair, and appropriate.

      June 26, 2014 Reply
  5. Eric

    For a man with credentials such as yours and a reputation for doing “his research”you have obviously not done it here. First, in my 30+ years of working for San Bernardino no member has retired at 50 with 90% of their pay. You would need to get hired at 20 to do so and work for 30 years. Second, San Bernardino’s pay is based on a formula that gives it the average of the mean of like sized cities in the state, and the City’s benefit package is at the bottom of all agencies in southern California. Spiking is not allowed within our CalPERS contract so that was also a false statement. The highest salaries that you quote (and most of those were in management)are due to the fact that the city of San Bernardino has refused to hire in order to save additional monies. Those “highest paid” that are in the rank and file of the department are from them working 96-120 hours per week 53 weeks out of the year. If the “average worker makes $50,000 in San Bernardino lime you say for a 40 hour work week, what would they make for a 120 hour work week? Try over $200,000 per year due to labor codes. Next time, please live up to your reputation and do the researchand don’t allow yourself to be used like this sir.

    June 25, 2014 Reply
    • Tough Love

      Quoting ..”First, in my 30+ years of working for San Bernardino no member has retired at 50 with 90% of their pay. You would need to get hired at 20 to do so and work for 30 years. ”

      Who cares. Is that really relevant. It’s outrageous that they can retire with more than 50% of final pay (with NO COLAs) at ANY age …. because that’s about the most generous pension that exists in the Private Sector ,,,, and Public Sector workers are NOT “special” and deserving of greater pensions and better benefits on the Taxpayers’ dime !

      June 26, 2014 Reply
    • Robert

      The average compensation of the top 40 employees of the Fire Dept is $249,585.
      The average salary only of the top 40 employees of the Fire Dept is $203,321.

      Those numbers are from the City’s 2012 Employee Compensation Report. Salaries never seem to go down, so I’d expect numbers to be higher for 2013.

      The bulk of this is coming from overtime. There are several firefighters making more money in overtime pay, than their annual salary. All of this information is available here:

      June 26, 2014 Reply
      • Jason

        I’m one of the ones whose salary and benefits total over $200,000. My take home pay, after cuts and imposed concessions, totals $51,000 per year. Most of those benefits are paid for by the firefighter out of the salary, so those numbers are skewed. No one understands how much of that big number ISN’T brought home to pay the bills.

        June 29, 2014 Reply
        • Robert

          None of the benefits reported are paid by the firefighter, according to the City of San Bernardino’s Finance Department who produces this information.

          The numbers displayed are the agency, in this case the City of San Bernardino’s, reported “employer-contribution” of benefits.

          That is to say, any benefits amount listed is reported by the agency as the employer-paid share only. Employee’s share is NOT reported.

          June 30, 2014 Reply
  6. Steve Brown

    Check your numbers they are off. And that Fire Dept is one of the busiest in the US. Do more research before you write a article. Thank you.

    June 26, 2014 Reply
    • S & P 500

      Greenhut clearly stated his source, and it’s Bloomberg. I assume that you mean that the FD is busy now, AFTER the massive cuts that were forced on it. In 2008 the FD had 171 personnel, now it has 134. A crew of 3 is assigned to a truck instead of 4. They have to waste $4 million less in 2014 because SB is broke. Here’s my source if you don’t believe those numbers:

      The FD is holding out on bankruptcy negotiations because it’s facing more sensible cuts, including the closure of 2-4 stations and contracting out paramedic services. Looks like they are in a “SAW” movie situation, where they have to make some impossible decisions. Impossible for spoiled public workers, anyway.

      June 26, 2014 Reply
  7. Eric

    Tough Love? At least we were willing to use our names. Have a great night.

    June 26, 2014 Reply
    • Tough Love

      And how many “Erics” are there ?

      Want to give the reader your FULL and and contract information ?

      June 26, 2014 Reply
      • Tough Love

        Ooophs … make that “your FULL name and contact information”

        June 26, 2014 Reply
  8. Pat Coughlin

    Since the majority of fire department responses are for medical calls, policy makers and citizens alike are pushing for downsizing fire departments. But when structure fires do occur, cities with reduced fire department staffing will be more vulnerable to life and property loss. There is a viable alternative that can cap salary costs, reduce overtime expenses and cap pension burdens. Cities are doing that by using full-time temporary employees to augment a smaller career staff. They are college students, who receive full or subsidized tuition for their public service. Such programs are working for career, combination and volunteer departments, and I have presented examples of them at

    July 1, 2014 Reply
  9. iOpener

    With the nation’s highest poverty, and over staffed government workers, San Bernardino is a joke. The city is BROKE, and the residents are all on government assistance. The money should be spent investing in communities, and kids, not adults looking out for their own benefit. Fire ALL Government employees, until San Bernardino becomes a true city again.

    October 25, 2014 Reply
    • dylan

      Lets not forget about the over 60 millon spent on the illegal immagrents last year in san bernardino thats just the welfare.Not including the hiospital bills they dont pay and now california is gonna lose another 140 millon to give theme drivers licnses.Its A known Fact that all the cities in califrnia going bank rupt have very high illegal immagration population rate.Its combination of both high pensions and illegal immagrents.

      October 30, 2014 Reply

Your Comment