Aug. 18 (Bloomberg) -- The Los Angeles labor leader who represents the highest-paid firefighters in the U.S. is running for the City Council on a pledge to preserve public-safety spending even as the city faces $911 million in deficits during the next four years.
Pat McOsker, 51, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City since 2003, set the fastest pace for campaign contributions among 18 candidates and is endorsed by four of the biggest public-worker unions for a special election to fill an open seat Nov. 8.
The nation’s second-largest city wrestled with deficits of about $500 million this year and the preceding one, and will be short a total of $911 million through 2016, according to budget documents. The police and fire departments accounted for 69 percent of unrestricted spending last year.
“It is vital that we protect public safety,” McOsker said in declaring his candidacy last month. “I will fight any cuts to police and fire protection and work to bring long-needed reforms to City Hall.”
Los Angeles firefighters made an average of $126,258 last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, more than twice the national mean. Fifty-three of the city’s 100 top-paid employees in 2010 were firefighters. Each collected more than the $195,869 earned by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In an interview, McOsker said his pay was $145,000.
The mean wage for the nation’s 302,000 salaried firefighters was $47,730 in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which includes other cities as well as county employees, the figure was $95,000. That compared with $57,360 in the Chicago area, $51,710 in Boston and $66,800 in metropolitan New York.
Los Angeles firefighters collect a greater share of overtime pay than other public employees because staffing rules require replacements for those who are sick or on vacation, according to Maritta Aspen, who negotiates with public-safety unions in the city manager’s office.
“This has been going on for years,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which advocates for lower taxes. “The public-employee unions are the most powerful force in state and local politics. No politician wants to stand up to them, so they continue this gravy train.”
The City Council has taken steps to reduce fire department expenses, including eliminating 318 positions to save $190 million in the next three years, according to budget documents.
Los Angeles’s 3,460 firefighters are required to work overtime, some punching the clock as much as 75 hours per week, while firefighters nationally average 48, McOsker said in a telephone interview. Los Angeles has just under one firefighter for every 1,000 residents. The national average in 2009 was 1.72 career firefighters per thousand, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“We’re dangerously understaffed,” McOsker said.
The son of a firefighter from the blue-collar Los Angeles neighborhood of San Pedro, McOsker has a brother, Mike, who is a retired firefighter and the union’s business representative. Another brother, Tim, served as chief of staff to the previous mayor, James Hahn.
Four of Los Angeles’s six largest public employee unions have endorsed McOsker’s campaign, according to Barbara Maynard, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of Los Angeles City Unions. He was the first of 18 candidates to reach $50,000 in contributions, according to the city’s ethics commission. McOsker said most of the money came from individual donors.
McOsker is not beloved by all of his fellow firefighters, some of whom launched an unsuccessful attempt to recall him as union president this year, according to Ron Harmon, a 50-year- old captain who says he started in the same class as the candidate.
McOsker’s tough stance in negotiations over department funding has alienated City Council members, residents and some firefighters, Harmon said.
“This is a guy who is firmly stuck in the early 20th century, being truly antagonistic to anyone who disagrees with him,” Harmon said in a telephone interview. “We don’t live in a vacuum. There was not a sense of responsibility to the guy on the street, the taxpayer.”
Firefighters have made contract concessions by skipping pay raises, lowering pension benefits for new hires and contributing 2 percent of their salaries toward health care in retirement, McOsker said.
“Our pay has stayed stagnant, we’ve made sacrifices, we’re helping the city get through the crisis,” he said.
--Editors: Pete Young, Stephen Merelman
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