The California State Controller recently published data showing that compensation of fire and police personnel in Berkeley reached a high of about $313,000 in 2016.
The paychecks of top earners were dominated by overtime pay, resulting in several annual wages more than double the employee’s regular pay.
The data, released June 27, shows salaries for most public employees in the state. The Alameda County numbers show police and fire personnel earning a disproportionate amount of overtime compared to other county employees.
Of the 2,181 people who were city of Berkeley employees in 2016, 22 out of the top 25 earners were either members of the fire brigade or police force.
On top of the high cost of living in Berkeley, according to City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the earnings of public safety officers are significant because of the high risk nature of their professions — however, Berkeley public safety employees salaries have also been exacerbated by a lack of personnel.
The highest-paid member of Berkeley city staff, a “fire apparatus operator,” received 41 percent of their 2016 income through overtime compensation.
“(Police officers and firefighters are) risking their lives in the performance of their everyday jobs,” Worthington said. “That’s one of the reasons why they are generally the highest paid employees in most cities.”
The aforementioned fire apparatus operator earned more than $310,000 — roughly $200,000 more than their regular pay of $112,182.
The $200,000 was composed of overtime compensation and additional payments. According to Berkeley Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief David Brannigan, the fire apparatus operator is in charge of driving the fire engine, controlling the pump and making sure the crew has access to water.
The second-highest total wage, $276,235, was composed of 51 percent overtime compensation and was earned by a police officer. The third-highest earner was the city manager, who took home $263,606, with no overtime. For comparison, the mayor of Berkeley earned about $33,000.
Overtime hours, which can be both mandatory and voluntary, normally arise when members of the force retire or take sick leave and their shifts must be covered. They also come into play when large events such as protests take place, and a significant safety presence is necessary. Working overtime hours is often required of public safety officers, but some positions on Berkeley city staff, such as heads of departments, are not allowed to take overtime pay.
In Berkeley, the demand for overtime is augmented by a small public safety staff. Both the police and fire departments in the city are actively searching for new recruits to alleviate the amount of overtime hours needed.
According to Brannigan, however, the departments are receiving far fewer applications than they have in years past. BPD has a standing application form on their website for new police recruits.
Recently, BFD completed a fire academy — but of their 12 vacancies, 11 people were enrolled in the academy, and only nine of the 11 successfully joined the force. “We’re coming out of our hiring cycle without all vacancies filled,” Brannigan said.
On the part of BPD, BPD spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Frankel attributed the low number of officer applications to the decline in public opinion of the police force.
Berkeley, however, is not the only city in California dealing with issues of public safety overtime. San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District drew criticism when the watchdog group Transparent California published a report showing that many fire department employees make more than $300,000 per year.
According to Taryn Kinney, a spokesperson from the state controller’s office, all government bodies in the state are required to submit annual salary information to their office.
“We publish (salary data) online to increase transparency and accountability of local government,” Kinney said. “It allows anyone to find out what their local government is spending.”
In past years, the city of Berkeley has used the data to guide the restructuring of the Department of Public Works — and hopes to do the same with the public safety sector, according to Worthington.
At an average salary of about $75,000, Alameda County has the third-highest compensation overall in the state, behind Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties. Within the county, Berkeley sits in the middle of the pack, with an average government salary of $62,000.
According to Worthington, this high average salary is primarily due to the area’s high cost of living.
“If you’re competing to get employees in an area where the cost of housing and the general cost of living is so high, you have to compensate people consistently,” Worthington said.
A previous version of this article stated that the city of San Ramon has its own fire department. In fact, fire services in San Ramon are provided by the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, an independent special district with its own board of directors and a separate tax source.