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    Southern California special district firefighter earns $290,000 … in overtime
    • October 6, 2023

    So we told you about the city firefighter who made more than $500,000 in overtime.

    Then we told you about the county firefighter who made more than $400,000 in overtime.

    And today we tell you about the special district firefighter who made more than $290,000 in overtime. (Starts to look cheap in comparison, right?)

    The crown for “California’s Most Prolific Overtime Earner Among 164,000+ Special District Employees” for 2022 goes to a captain with the Orange County Fire Authority. His overtime pay ($290,399) was more than twice his regular pay ($127,306), with total wages of $451,010, according to data from the state controller.

    That does not include what the Fire Authority pays for his health plan and retirement benefits, which totaled another $75,162 (for total compensation of $526,172).

    Next up on the statewide special district “oodles of overtime” list was a Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District captain, whose overtime pay ($277,576) was also more than twice his regular pay ($122,325), with total wages of $435,780.

    No. 3 statewide: another Orange County Fire Authority captain ($277,499 overtime, $124,877 regular pay, total wages of $444,110).

    Surprise! No. 4 broke the firefighting mold — a staff nurse in Alameda County’s Washington Township Health Care District (overtime of $272,622, regular pay of $224,214, total wages of $499,620) — but firefighting popped right back with No. 5, with Riverside County’s Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s chief (overtime of $264,578, regular pay of $132,525, total wages of $463,680).

    If someone had told me all this, I might have had a slightly different career trajectory. And to answer the question that comes up after each overtime series installment: No, overtime does not spike pension pay.

    You can see the entire spreadsheet on statewide special district pay here.

    What’s so special?

    A special district, for those unschooled in California’s crazy patchwork quilt of local governments, is a single-purpose agency that (traditionally) popped up during California’s rural rancho days, when there weren’t city or county governments around to kill rats and mosquitoes, or distribute library books, or pump and deliver water, or treat and dispose of sewage, or, say, fight fires.

    Even as major metropolises grew up around them they continue to exist. They exist above, beyond and in addition to the more visible (and perhaps more accountable) city, county and state governments, many of which could arguably do their jobs just fine and save taxpayers/ratepayers money at the same time.

    • In Los Angeles County, there are 202 special districts (as well as 88 city governments and the county government), according to controller data.

    • In Orange County, there are 77 special districts (as well as 34 city governments and the county government).

    • In Riverside County, there are 117 special districts (as well as 28 city governments and the county government).

    • In San Bernardino County, there are 99 special districts (as well as 24 city governments and the county government).

    Every last one of them is vital to functioning, they’ll tell you. Their focus on a single mission (say, water delivery), rather than a mess of missions (say, like cities), allows them to provide better service. But precisely why, say, O.C. needs 16 different water agencies and a half-dozen sewer agencies — in addition to all those cities and the county government — will forever mystify me.

    (OK, actually, not much of a mystery: “Believe it or not,” a droll Bob Braitman, retired LAFCO exec in many California counties told me, “special districts sometimes don’t want to consolidate. If you look it up in your dictionary, it’s something called ‘parochialism.’ Sometimes they pay their board of directors’ members a stipend. Sometimes the directors don’t want to give up that stipend, or the status that goes with it. Sometimes they’re opposed even if it would be logical. Sometimes.”)


    But we digress. Back to overtime and the firefighters who dominate the special district top-earners list, just like their municipal brethren.

    In Orange County, OCFA overwhelms the overtime spending list, dropping $62 million on it last year. Its regular payroll was $141.2 million. Trailing way behind, but next up, was the Orange County Sanitation District, spending $2.3 million on overtime; the Irvine Ranch Water District, $2.2 million; Moulton-Niguel Water District, $1.3 million; and Santa Margarita Water District, $878,329. (See pay detail for all Orange County special districts here.)

    In Riverside County, the overtime picture was much tamer. Its biggest overtime spender was the Riverside Transit Agency, at $2.9 million; the Coachella Valley Water District at $1.4 million; the Sunline Transit Agency at $1.2 million; Eastern Municipal Water District at $924,099; and the Western Municipal Water District at $840,324. (See pay detail for all Riverside County special districts here.)

    In San Bernardino County, the biggest overtime spenders were the Chino Valley Independent Fire District, at $8.3 million; the Inland Empire Health Plan, $5 million; Big Bear Fire Authority, $2.9 million; Omnitrans, $2.5 million; and the Apple Valley Fire Protection District $1.6 million. (See pay detail for all San Bernardino County special districts here.)

    Los Angeles County doesn’t have any independent firefighting special districts to dominate the list. That left the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority as the biggest overtime spender, at $84.4 million. Next up was Antelope Valley Healthcare District, $17.2 million; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, $12.6 million; L.A. County Sanitation District No. 2, $7.8 million; and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, $2.6 million. (See pay detail for all Los Angeles County special districts here.)


    Well, as far as firefighting goes, there are the demands of crazy fire seasons and the “minimum staffing levels” hammered out between agencies and their elected boards.

    OCFA has been wrestling with overtime costs for years. It tracks the spending closely and reports on it annually — it has run close to $70 million a year for the past several years. It will keep wrestling the bear: Staff has been directed to “continue pursuing reductions in overtime by filling vacant positions as quickly as possible after the positions become vacant,” as well as queue up more dispatchers and “use overtime to fill shifts that are temporarily vacant rather than hiring additional personnel, recognizing this as a cost-effective practice for temporary needs.”

    The basic situation: “All seven Chino Valley Fire District fire stations are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said spokesperson Massiel Ladron De Guevara. “Overtime is generated for various reasons, including vacancies resulting from retirements or injuries to personnel. The Fire District has a recruitment schedule in place to find quality candidates to fill vacancies.”

    We had a refreshingly frank chat with Jeff Willis, chief of the Big Bear Fire Authority.

    “Other departments can adjust staffing depending on the anticipated workload — but that’s not the case with the fire services,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to predict that with reasonable accuracy. That drives minimum staffing levels — the cost of the standing army.”

    Well, we know the overwhelming majority of emergency calls are medical in nature. So why does a fire engine show up alongside the ambulance? Do they expect people to spontaneously combust?

    “That gets back to workload,” he said. “It’s difficult to accurately predict what a patient’s needs are going to be. In Big Bear, houses are up off the road or down below. Sometimes just two people carrying a gurney up or down the stairs is not appropriate. You might need four people to carry the gurney.

    “When people dial 911, they expect an awful lot from us.”

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    Of course, the folks who run things have the power to expand or contract the “standing army,” though this is often a bitter battle fought with unions seeking to get the most for their members. Like some other fire agencies, Big Bear transitioned firefighters off of ambulances. It now has new non-safety classifications for the likes of ambulance operators, paramedics and emergency medical services workers, and that has saved money.

    “Those folks are very qualified, but they are not designated safety personnel,” he said. “They can’t do cut and rescue, firefighting, the safety aspects that are the most dangerous parts of our job. They’re not allowed.”

    To make a real dent in overtime, we hear two different things: 1. Give us more money to hire more people; or 2. Change the minimum staffing model, separating fire from paramedic services.

    OT can be contained, but only by changing the model, city administrators have told us. Some believe that nobody in the fire service wants to contain OT because it lines their pockets handsomely.

    Want to do something about that? Let your city council members, county supervisors and special district boards know.

    ​ Orange County Register