Public Safety Officials Evade Salary and Pension Reforms

Cops and firefighters can face dangerous situations, but the reality is those occupations are much safer than many others.


SPRINGFIELD, Ill.–Hundreds of firefighters marched in their starched uniforms.

A phalanx of hook and ladder trucks from across the state lined Monroe Street next to the Illinois Statehouse. 

A band of bagpipers played. 

Somber politicians spoke.

And a wreath was laid at the foot of the Illinois Firefighters Memorial.

Bourbonnais, Ill., firefighter Bruce Spaulding's name was then enshrined in perpetuity on the grounds of the Illinois Capitol Building.

Nothing was said about how Spaulding died, only that he had sacrificed himself for the people of Illinois.

The cash-strapped state of Illinois cut his family a check for $268,703 to honor the fallen "hero." 

There were no flames, or ladders or heroism marking Spaulding's death. He died while mowing the front lawn of a fire station when his riding lawnmower tipped over. 

Any worker's death is tragic, but public safety employee unions have elevated the death of some to be more tragic than others.

Cops and firefighters can face dangerous situations, but the reality is those occupations are much safer than many others.

Farmers, ranchers, commercial fishermen, loggers, garbage collectors, truck drivers, construction workers, pilots, steel workers, roofers, and others are far more likely to face death on the jobs than police or firefighters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But police and firefighters have cultivated an aura of gallantry and sacrifice that they have parlayed into fatter paychecks, exorbitant pensions, and benefits unmatched in the private sector. 

Public safety worker benefits have become the third rail of municipal politics.

Just consider:

In 2008 the Orange County Register noted that the average firefighter living in that California community earned $175,000 in salary and benefits each year.

In California and in many other states there is a "presumptive disability" law for firefighters that makes it easy for firemen to secure lifetime, tax-free pensions at three-quarters pay. A doctor is required to start with the assumption that certain illnesses are job-related. For example, it would be presumed that a firefighter's high blood pressure is work related.

80 percent of 2010 Fire Department of New York retirees have qualified for disability benefits according to National Review.

Even in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has led efforts to curtail collective bargaining by public employees, police and fire unions were exempted from his reforms.

Unlike most public sector unions, which are largely seen as aligned with Democrats, police and fire unions behave in a more bi-partisan manner by occasionally endorsing Republicans, says Vincent Vernuccio, a labor policy expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This dynamic leaves neither party acting as a watchdog.

"Anecdotally, it would seem that Republicans have more of a law-and-order reputation. They seem so safety and security focused so it would make sense that they would be [more] charitable to first responders than to say – teacher unions," said Andy Shaw, a longtime journalist who is president of Better Government Association, a Chicago-based government watchdog group.

"Firefighters are just held in high esteem by everyone in the Legislature.  After all, they are there to protect us and others and the only thing between them and harm's way is their training," said Illinois state Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson.

Moffitt, who co-chairs the Fire Caucus, is the leading advocate for firefighters in the Illinois Legislature.

"Yes, police firefighters and EMS have a lot of clout, but I find that their demands are altogether reasonable," added Moffitt, whose son is a firefighter.

Moffitt's words came only a day after a Better Government Association investigation found that during the past 20 years about 40 veteran Lansing, Ill., police officers and firefighters were given salary boosts by the village as they were retiring, escalating their individual pensions by at least $6,000 each annually in the first year alone. Altogether, at least $2.5 million in added pension payouts have been dispersed since this taxpayer-funded perquisite was created in 1993.

Shaw, president of the BGA, said that if one suburb is doing this, it is likely that other communities across Illinois are as well. 

Just why it is that police officers and firefighters are the recipients of this largess is an open question. 

"Police, fire paramedics – they save lives, they save property and they risk their lives to do those things," Shaw said. "So in some ways we should be especially grateful and we should be fair and generous – but not excessive. … This is appreciation on steroids."

Scott Reeder is the Franklin Center's national investigative reporter. He is based in Springfield, Ill.