Bonuses swell pay for police, firefighters

first_imgLos Angeles police and firefighter bonuses soared last year to $80 million, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the $117 million in bonus payments to all municipal workers, according to records obtained by the Daily News. Payments have quadrupled over the past five years as labor negotiations have expanded the number of available bonuses – nearly doubling citywide to 149 last year – and the number of employees eligible to get them. Now there is extra pay for everything from shift differentials and bilingual premiums to marksmanship bonuses and uniform allowances. Meanwhile, the number of paid bonuses rose from 11,383 to 52,272 last year, with some employees receiving more than one, according to documents obtained under the California Public Records Act. The steepest climbs have been in the Police Department, where bonuses have grown by an average of 22 percent annually since 2001. In the Fire Department, the annual rise has averaged 41 percent. As city leaders vow to close a budget deficit of nearly $300 million over the next five years, they have put the rapidly escalating bonuses in their cross-hairs. “To see the huge dollar increases in bonuses over the last five years – it’s enormous,” City Controller Laura Chick said in an interview. “I think the most pure and simple answer is labor asked for these bonuses, and the city gave them.” Officials said bonuses could be on the table in upcoming negotiations with police and firefighter unions. Speaking with Chick at a budget event last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said costs boomed because “people haven’t been monitoring these bonuses.” City workers staunchly defend the bonuses as necessary incentives for vital and sometimes hazardous work. While the payments are officially counted as bonuses, union officials point out that many function as reimbursements for essential tools and uniforms that workers must buy for themselves. “They’re the result of hard bargaining on both parts, and they’re the result of very specific needs that need to be met,” said Cheryl Parisi, executive director of the Am erican Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council 36, which represents 8,000 city employees in a number of departments. Parisi pointed to clerical workers who get bonuses for learning technological skills that can save the city money by adding efficiency. Still, union leaders generally agree with the need to reform the process by which bonuses are awarded. “My understanding is the mayor and the controller are doing the right thing. They’re going to double-check with city departments to make sure no one is getting a bonus they’re not entitled to,” said Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112. Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 347, which represents about 10,000 blue-collar employees, added that a review could lead to city workers receiving more proper payments. “What they’re partly right about is there’s nobody in charge,” she said. “Almost all of them are kind of patchwork in response to something evolved over time but not necessarily in any kind of context of what prudent management would do.” While many bonus categories are self-explanatory, such as those for special job skills – such as flying a helicopter or handling a trained dog – or for extra education or language abilities, others are more mysterious. Last year, for example, 259 workers received a total of $776,666.59 for a bonus labeled “obnoxious.” The category cuts across numerous city departments and generally is available to employees who work in sewers or around powerful equipment. While the “obnoxious” bonus has existed for years, dozens of others have been added since 2001 – mostly for public safety employees. The largest new bonus is for firefighters with emergency medical skills, a category that racked up $7.8 million in payments last year. Fire Department bonuses totaled $2.9 million in 2001 but ballooned to nearly $34.5 million last year, according to Controller’s Office records. City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka said such rises reflect the hiring of new firefighters and the changing nature of the department, which is responding to more medical calls. “What you’re seeing is a natural growth of the Fire Department and the training of firefighters and not any sort of duplicity or abuse,” McOsker said. At the Police Department, bonuses cost $16.4 million in 2001 but soared to $45.9 million last year – with some of them used to recruit officers with advertisements touting perks like bilingual pay. Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, said he plans to defend the language and uniform allowances in upcoming negotiations. “Other bonuses, like hazard pay for SWAT and bomb-squad members or bonuses for bilingual officers, are just common sense for recruitment and retention,” Baker said in a printed statement. “These officers deserve it and they’ve earned it.” Former Chief Bernard Parks said that in nearly four decades with the Los Angeles Police Department, he saw the bonuses become more prominent. Now on the City Council, Parks chairs the Budget and Finance Committee, and he is helping lead the push to find ways to trim costs. “I don’t think the intent was to dispute whether the bonuses are appropriate or accurate,” he said. “It’s whether the city is administering the program properly to make sure no one is getting a bonus they’re not qualified for.” None of the officials would speculate on how much money might be saved by stepping up oversight. A recent audit by Chick’s office, however, looked at a sample of 50 bonuses and found that four lacked sufficient documentation to justify the payments and another went to an employee in a position that did not meet eligibility requirements. Most of those problems were identified in the Fire Department, and Battalion Chief David Yamahata, who handles employee relations, said the agency is working to improve its payment tracking system. While the current efforts will focus on the payment process, officials will also review future contract negotiations. “It’s always hard to take something away, but during negotiations everything’s on the table,” Chick said. Dan Laidman, (213) 978-0390 [email protected] AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE‘Mame,’ ‘Hello, Dolly!’ composer Jerry Herman dies at 88160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more