As budget discussions ramp up at the city of Spokane, a conservative think tank has released a study suggesting that pay for Spokane’s police and firefighters has not only outpaced the region’s average wages but is better than what their peers in larger Northwest cities are earning.
Among the highlights in the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center study: The average firefighter and police officer salary in Spokane is 87 percent higher than the median household income in Spokane; police and fire union dues total about $750,000 annually; and police and fire employees on average are compensated better than their peers in Portland.
Though the numbers could be read as an indictment, the study’s co-author said the study wasn’t meant to sway people but rather inform them.
“People can see what the numbers are and decide if they’re too low, too high or just about right,” said Chris Cargill, the center’s Eastern Washington director. “People make good policy decisions when they know the numbers.”
Don Waller, the local fire union’s president, said he was still “digesting” the paper but added that his members receive gratitude, not criticism for their pay.
“The feedback we get is for the job we do, which is not an average job,” he said.
Brian Coddington, spokesman for Mayor David Condon, said he just briefly read the report but that “it falls right in line with what the mayor’s trying to do with the 2014 program budget” in regard to addressing the “structural gap” between spending and revenue.
The mayor’s preliminary budget proposal, which was released last week, includes $2.5 million to add 25 police officer positions to the force, and keeps the same number of firefighting positions. The current year’s budget was balanced in part by cutting public safety positions.
Using data from multiple cities, previous years’ budget proposals, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the policy center presents its study as a disinterested examination of payment and compensation for public safety employees in Spokane.
According to the study, the police department’s average base compensation came to about $111,000 per officer, which includes the cost of retirement and health care benefits. In contrast, Boise officers were compensated at $98,000 annually, and Portland officers brought in just over $102,000.
In Spokane, city taxpayers pay 92 percent of the health insurance premiums for police officers and 100 percent of the premiums for firefighters.
Also, mandatory union dues bring in more than $200,000 from police employees, at $570 each. Unionized fire employees pay $2,200 every year, for a total of $550,000.
“Part of the reason that we put the union numbers on there is we wanted to say to people, ‘Look.’ Every dollar that we have is a big deal and people want to know where those dollars are going,” said Cargill, the study’s author. “If you just took half of that you could hire three or four new firefighters.”
The report also compared Spokane’s average household income with the average pay of fire and police employees, and then did the same for Stockton, Calif., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Mobile, Ala.
According to the report, the average public safety officer earns 87 percent more than the average household income in Spokane. In Stockton, the difference is 35 percent, Fort Wayne is lower than 3 percent and Mobile is a quarter of a percent.
Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said this comparison stood out to him.
“I don’t know if 87 percent is where we want to be,” he said.
When reached by phone in his patrol car, Officer John Gately, Spokane Police Guild president, said he hadn’t seen the policy report and could not comment until he studied it further.
Cargill, who said it was important that he did not draw conclusions in his report, drew attention to the success public safety labor unions have had negotiating lucrative contracts for their members.
“Strong unions fight for what they believe in, and they’re good at it. Their job is not to stand up for the interest of taxpayers. That’s what a union is all about. You can’t really blame them for that,” Cargill said. “It’s really a question of what the citizens can afford to pay.”
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