Because the crews work 84 hours every two weeks, their San Diego personnel receive 4 hours of overtime every pay period. Whenever emergency responses require more staffing, the fire department also pays overtime wages to personnel who have volunteered to be on a "will-work" list. With the city's current finances in disarray, overtime wages for fire captains has recently become a hot-button issue. On March 8, Kenny Anderson reported on KPBS radio that last year, two fire-department employees made more money than the city's police chief, fire chief, mayor, and city manager. One of them, he said, earned a base salary last year of $118,000 and overtime pay of $123,000 for a total of $241,000. The other made $212,000 in salary and overtime combined.
Luque tells me that Jeff Bowman decided early in his tenure as San Diego's fire chief that paying overtime was more cost-effective than hiring new full-timers who require benefits. "A lot of times, those employees would only be sitting around doing nothing," Luque says. But overtime hours are expensive in two ways: San Diego compensates them at a time-and-a-half rate, and they expand an employee's pension benefits.
Critics are unanimous that the city's pension system is the biggest culprit in San Diego's current financial woes. In a February 18 editorial titled "Share the Burden," the San Diego Union-Tribune called for San Diego City Firefighters and other unions to give up some of the pension benefits they have negotiated in the past several years. On Thursday, March 3, and Wednesday, March 9, I called firefighters governmental affairs representative Johnnie Perkins for comment. Twice Perkins did not answer his phone after his secretary took my name, so I left a message asking how much firefighters' overtime pay affects their city pensions. As of press time, Perkins had not returned my call.