Bankrupt Cities

San Bernardino Firefighters Wedgied by Their Own Petards

Resistance to cutbacks to recover from bankruptcy may result in outsourcing.


An Internet search for firefighters with hanging wedgies came up empty. Apparently there are gaps with Rule 34.

There's a famous saying: "The squeaky wheel gets the oil." There's a much less famous variation: "The squeaky wheel doesn't always get the oil. Sometimes it gets replaced."

The broken California city of San Bernardino abruptly filed for bankruptcy back in July 2012 and is still, nearly three years later, slogging its way through an attempt at a plan to recover. Contributing to the city's financial problems, along with the typical rising cost of employee pensions and health benefits, was an entrenched rule in the city charter that put control of public safety employee wages out of the hands of city leaders. It was instead formulated via a calculation to match the average of nearby (much wealthier) cities, prompting on occasion the City Council to have to approve raises for some employees even while trying to deal with the bankruptcy process.

The city put a measure on the ballot last November to attempt to amend the city charter to allow for collective bargaining of public safety wages like pretty much every other city. The public safety unions fought the effort, loudly. The measure failed. San Bernardino is still stuck with the charter rule.

The union representing firefighters has been pretty much completely intransigent during the entire bankruptcy process so far. Here's Cassie Macduff of the Riverside Press Enterprise listing exactly how the firefighters' union is a main reason why the bankruptcy proceedings have dragged on so long:

The firefighters union dug in its heels and fought the city every step of the way in trying to manage its fiscal crisis. The union sued the city repeatedly. Some of the issues are still bouncing around the courts, costing tens of thousands in attorney fees.

When six city unions agreed to give back 10 percent of their pay, the firefighters union was the lone holdout.

When five city unions agreed to forgo merit pay raises, the firefighters and fire management unions refused.

The firefighters union long ago quit taking part in bankruptcy court negotiations, while the other creditors, including the police union, were in the good-faith talks.

And on top of all of this, San Bernardino's proposed bankruptcy plan is, like other cities that have gone through this process, favoring paying off its debt to the city's pension system while leaving bondholders with little. From Reuters:

San Bernardino's council approved a bankruptcy exit plan on Monday night that seeks to virtually eliminate the southern California city's pension bond debt while paying Calpers, the state pension system, in full. …

Under the plan, city officials want to slash their $50 million pension debt to just a penny on the dollar. The city previously agreed to pay Calpers, its biggest creditor, in full now and at all times in the future, an agreement incorporated into the plan.

Oh, and also this:

San Bernardino also intends to virtually eliminate retiree health care costs under the plan, and to outsource its fire, emergency response and trash services.

Good job there, firefighter's union. The city is taking bids from other nearby fire departments to outsource the services, but there's also talk about privatizing it. This has prompted some concerns. Via The (San Bernardino) Sun:

Even before Monday's vote, the head of the union representing San Bernardino County firefighters, Jim Grigoli, spent Monday in Sacramento rallying opposition to the move.

"I'd be doing the same if this was Orange County … and I think you will have the California Professional Firefighters standing against this 100 percent, and (union) locals from all of the state," Grigoli said by phone. "You're talking about public safety. You're crossing a fine line when you do that with a private company."

One of the apparent public safety dangers described in The Sun's piece with having a private fire service is that the fire agencies in surrounding communities would refuse to enter into mutual aid agreements with them to work together on major fires when necessary. That is to say, the public fire agencies would refuse to work with the private fire agency, thereby increasing the fire risk to the public.

There was also whining about the "profit motive," which is kind of hilarious given the situation. One councilman, Jim Mulvihill, actually called the fire union out on this:

"They're sort of the flagship of irresponsibility in terms of reacting to the city's financial crisis," he said, referring to lawsuits, dropping out of bankruptcy mediation, and union members' earlier refusal to accept 10 percent lower pay as other unions did. "And so to my point of view, we don't have a very responsive fire union. In America, competition is what makes business competitive. And if they (unions) come out in force, it's because they're threatened by competition."

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  1. Eyebleach to aisle one, please, need eyebleach on aisle one.

  2. An Internet search for firefighters with hanging wedgies came up empty. Apparently there are gaps in Rule 34.

    You didn’t look hard enough.

    1. Oh, I looked at that quite hard…no hanging wedgie tho’…

      P.S. Thanks for that.

    2. Eh. To each their own.

    3. I am fine with that particular firefighter getting the oil or grease or syrup…

  3. There’s a famous saying: “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

    I believe it is “the squeaky wheel gets the grease…..the+grease

    1. ^^ this, totally

      SOMEONE clearly doesn’t do his own car maintenance….

      Oil, Scott? REALLY? “Oil”?

      1. Cosmotarians, amirite?

        1. JiffyLubeitarians, fo’ schizzle….

          1. “JiffyLubetarian”

            *prolonged applause*

            1. *turns suddenly, slips on oily floor, breaks neck, paralyzed*

            2. *runs into shop to help, slips wildy and crashes into pit box tool cart*

              1. *Taps manicured nails on car roof, concludes all involved are libertarians, leaves*

            3. *single tear of joy streaks down cheek*

          2. Rule 34, subclause (b), there will also be a Burning Man reference.

        2. nice

    2. Crash Davis, “You’ve got to learn your cliches!”

      1. And, God willing and the creek don’t rise, he will…

        1. As long as he takes it one day at a time.

          1. It’s a team game. (Where are the layers and layers of editors?)

  4. That Alt Text, Scott…..

    *starts slow clap – nods approvingly*

  5. Gilmore’s gotta do the alt-text

  6. The measure failed.

    WTF? Talk about low-information voters.

    1. It’s possible that the public sector makes up a non trivial portion of the electorate.

      1. I would guess around 25% for a poor city like that – which in and of itself is horrifying – but it just makes my brain hurt that the rest would so obviously vote against their own interest on a targeted measure.

        1. I think that technical issues such as how a pension is funded and structured make a large proportion of the regular population get a headache. They might not have turned out in big numbers. But the people who reap the rewards are HIGHLY in tune with it, so they turn out, and their spouses and voting-age family members turn out.

          Multiplier effect!

  7. …and to outsource its fire, emergency response and trash services.


  8. Why don’t we wait until the firefighters go on strike, then set their union hall alight? You know, see who responds.

    1. Ohhhhhhhh, SNAP!!!

    2. I like it.

  9. I know better than to click on anything you guys link to.

    1. Wise this one is.


    2. We pre-screened the photo, no worries.

  10. “You’re crossing a fine line when you do that with a private company.”

    Yeah, we wouldn’t want people who put their own financial gain above the concerns of the community!

    1. Yeah, when then the private company violates their contract you don’t have to pay them and you can shop for a new company.

      Eventually, the fire fighters will all be private. The private companies will offer better salaries and 401k and the younger firefighters will opt for the better pay than the empty pension promises.

      I can even see a day when your insurance company tells you which fire fighting service to call and the decision is completely removed from government.

    1. The 1%?

  11. The township I live in has a private company provide its fire/paramedic services.

    They cost less than half what it would have cost to continue having a nearby city provide fire service.
    They are fast, usually getting to accidents before a Sheriff deputy.
    They have mutual aid agreements with nearby public city departments.
    They provide high quality service….the township has a very respectable PPC rating of 3/6 depending on proximity to hydrants.

    The “danger” of a private company providing fire services is that its dangerous to public employee jobs.

    1. I think the danger anytime public money is involved is cronyism. That goes for private companies as well as public employee unions. But I think at times conservatives (and some libertarians, to a lesser extent) don’t account enough for the fact that a private company receiving public money is not the same thing as a private company operating in the marketplace, and so contracting out government services to a private company doesn’t necessarily eliminate or reduce the problems inherent to government.

      Not saying it can’t be beneficial or that it isn’t in your township’s case, just making a general point.

      1. “a private company receiving public money is not the same thing as a private company operating in the marketplace”

        That’s very true, but in my experience it is still vastly preferable. Private contractors doing business with public agencies are subject to extensive disclosure requirements, as are the public agencies doing the contracting. Costs are day-lighted way more than they are if a public agency does something internally.

        Further, if a private contractor doesn’t perform well, their contract can be canceled, or at least not renewed, and someone else who can do it better/cheaper can be brought in instead. If a public agency performs poorly with its own forces, there’s not a lot that can be done.

        Thus, a basic dynamic gets introduced which is really healthy: the administrator who gets raked over the coals when agencies perform poorly will cover for their own direct employees, but will throw a private contractor under the bus in a heartbeat and hire a new one.

        This isn’t universally true (we’re having a hard time getting rid of an obviously incompetent and somewhat corrupt construction consulting firm out of our local school district), but it at least opens up possibilities that aren’t there otherwise.

        1. Yeah, like I said, it can work if the mechanism you reference is actually applied. But in many instances (like with a lot of private prisons), it isn’t, and it’s just a graft scheme with very little market forces at work.

      2. Our township has been doing this since 2011 and I believe they have changed companies once already after the first contract expired.

        In the end it doesn’t really matter to me anymore since I am hopefully going to finish my move to a different state within the next month.

        1. And fires are against the law in your new state?

          1. No, how this private company functions as a fire department won’t matter to me any more.

            New town has a volunteer department.

    2. Hell, until I moved to the big city, every place I’ve lived had all volunteer fire companies. Even here in The Rockaways, half the peninsula is served by the Breezy Point Volunteer Fire Company not NYFD.

      1. Volunteer fire companies are from what I understand the norm throughout most the country.

        Here in the Chicagoland area its almost all public employees or private fire companies though.

        1. There used to be. Then the Democrats took power.

          Still plenty of volunteer departments in Northwest Indiana.

    3. The township I grew up in had a sort of private company doing the same in the ’70’s. When the state cut funding for rural emergency services, a group got together and formed a non-profit to operate the fire/rescue/ambulance service. You could pay an annual membership fee and get emergency services if you needed them or you could not pay a membership fee and get a whopping bill for services if you needed them. I have no idea if submitting a claim to your insurance company for such a bill would get paid or rejected, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be an option.

      1. Insurance will usually pay some for an ambulance/fire call. But not a “whopping” bill.

    4. The question is. What is the population of your township? San Bernardino is a city of 210,000 and 40,000 in the county islands that are served by the San Bernardino CITY fire Dept. In 2009 prior to budget crunches, daily staffing was 55 personnel from 12 stations. As of today, it is now 38 from 11 stations. Some days it is only 33 due to ‘brown outs’ of equipment. Sbfd responds to 30,000 calls annually.

      In comparison, the combined fire departs of Anaheim Fullerton and Orange (daily staffing of 125 from 27-28 stations) respond to 43,000 calls annually while serving a population base of 610,000. And the additional people coming to visit and do business in the area.

      In the last year SBFD has had at least 10 firefighters leave for other fd’s. Matter of fact 7 went to Anaheim (Capts, engineers and paramedics) to start their careers over as entry level paramedics. Three captains have left for Fullerton. One battalion chief left for
      El Segundo. And there are more testing out.

  12. One of the apparent public safety dangers described in The Sun’s piece with having a private fire service is that the fire agencies in surrounding communities would refuse to enter into mutual aid agreements with them to work together on major fires when necessary.
    Hmmm, and what do you suppose would be the source of these major fires? A sudden increase in unemployed fire fighters and a sudden increase in arson kinda go together like a match and a boxful of oily rags, don’t ya think?

      1. “Jimmy Grigoli” is certainly a nice, solid Greek name.

      2. Sounds like a good band name if you primarily play gay clubs.

    1. Always reminds me of this story.…..1421/posts

  13. I have no sympathy for the bond holders. They’re investors in an extortion racket.

    1. How do you feel about the rule of law?

      1. Investors in extortion rackets are accessories to the crime?

  14. “When five city unions agreed to forgo merit pay raises, the firefighters and fire management unions refused.”

    “Merit pay” is guaranteed by contract?!

    LO effin’ L

  15. The problem is really monopoly. Which government tells me is always a bad thing. Unless it’s government that has the monopoly.

    Each property owner should either contract for his own fire service or at least go through an insurance company for such services. If the insurance company picks a shitty fire fighting company, they’ll have to pay more claims.

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