SALINAS, Calif.- No doubt, the economy has been tough on the City of Salinas. It is still facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall and struggling to give its police and fire departments the vital resources they so desperately need.
At the same time, its public safety employees haven't received pay raises in years, instead agreeing to concessions.
But these same employees are making well over $100,000 dollars a year and raking in millions of dollars in overtime.
Try $85,000 in overtime for one Salinas police officer.
It's a complicated situation.
Salinas Fire Chief Edmond Rodriguez walked through Salinas fire station three on a sunny day in July, pointing out dry rot, duct tape repairs to windows and water damage. Those are just some of the small problems you can see.
Across town, Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin pointed out his problems inside the deteriorating police station.
But it's what you can't see with the naked eye that may be a problem for taxpayers.
$85,000 dollars of overtime in one year for one Salinas police officer or $31,000 dollars in OT for a fire engineer. The list goes on, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the fire department this year and $2.4 million dollars for police all in addition to regular salaries.
But the chiefs argue, a lot of that overtime is actually to just maintain the minimum staffing levels required by law.
Fire Chief Rodriguez currently has a minimum staffing of 23 firefighters per shift responding to 12,000 calls this year --- well above other cities with similar populations.
He blatantly calls the financial situation of the department bare bones and anorexic.
He said, 94 percent of his budget is salary-- and that's exactly what some fiscally conservative groups have a problem with, many of whom spoke out against "Measure E" in 2012, which voters passed implementing a permanent sales tax increase that went into the general fund. Anti-tax crusaders had argued that the average total compensation per employee is up more than 57 percent-- so the city needed to focus cuts on salaries.
Last year, 10 fire personnel made more than $20,000 in overtime, multiple that together? That's $200,000 in OT
"Unfortunately, because of the work load and minimum to provide to this community we are hurting firefighters pretty regularly, so good portion of firefighters on emergency leave because of injuries, " said Chief Rodriguez.
So, the question is, keep paying the overtime or hire a couple more firefighters? We checked.
Salinas' finance department says it costs less, to pay overtime for a current firefighter, rather than hire a new one because the city isn't paying the additional benefit costs that come with the new employee.
According to the state controller's office and a Sacramento Bee analysis in 2011-- the average pay for firefighters in the state was around $118,000. In Salinas, it was $125,000, about the same as it is today.
The city says public safety employees have made significant concessions continually over the years. And it's not as simple as tearing up a contract and starting over, unless a city declares bankruptcy. Ironically, the fire chief interviewed for the Salinas job on the day his old city of Stockton declared bankruptcy and Rodriguez said Salinas actually looked worse.
Chief McMillin said he's working on a 38 million dollar budget this year-- and next year-- it looks worse for the department. There are 148 officers right now, but McMillin wants 280 in a perfect world. But it's far from perfect.
And with big take down operations with state and federal partners, swat calls to shootings and stabbings-- officers are racking up the hours and the city says it's nearly impossible to predict the overtime, and it's inevitable.
"One of the questions we get asked all the time is, if you have millions in overtime? Why not hire more police officers, right? Hire more officers, take away from overtime load? The simple way to answer that is to understand that need for OT doesn't come in neat 40 hour blocks," said Chief McMillin. "I say try to follow that officer's schedule around for a few weeks and see how long they last because these officers are working themselves constantly."
In 2009, there were 187 sworn officers. OT was $2.4 million. Today we have about 40 fewer officers, but OT is still at $2.4 million. So, the chief says, more officers doesn't necessarily mean less overtime.
"What that does translate into, is a massive reduction in service to community when you see relative amount of overtime with 40 fewer officers than we had before, we are cutting massive amounts of services the community deserves," said McMillin.
A new Salinas Police Officer is getting $127,500 to $137,400. Officers in Elk Grove, a city of similar size near Sacramento, have an annual Salary with benefits of $88,085. In a city like Santa Maria, which also sees it's fair share of crime, but with a slightly smaller population, the city finance director said a new police officer makes $92,930.
"I will defend their salaries all day long," said McMillin.
While Salinas' finance department said the city has not conducted a salary survey in several years, employee salaries also haven't increased in a number of years either.
Salinas police officers agreed to keep their concessions in play for another two years. The city has yet to settle with fire department employees, as negotiations continue.