Big Government, Issues, Labor Unions

Fiscal Arson from Firefighters, Fiscal Crime from Cops

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I wrote just yesterday that it’s tough to be a libertarian because “public choice” means never-ending pressure for bigger government.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Seaman Barry Riley (Released)

But the good part of working in public policy as a libertarian is that I never lack for topics. Simply stated, governments do so many foolish things (not just in Washington, but also overseas, as well as state governments and local governments) that I have a target-rich environment for analysis and commentary.

But sometimes there’s a personal motivation. I’m a resident of Fairfax County in Virginia, and my profligate local government levies a very onerous property tax on my house.

And what do I get in exchange? The lion’s share of the county budget goes to government schools, but that doesn’t benefit me since I found those institutions inadequate and put my kids in private schools.

The other major line item in the budget is police and fire protection. I’ve been fortunate to never need those services, but I recognize that they have value. But this still leaves the question of whether I’m overpaying or underpaying for the theoretical benefits I’m receiving.

If this story from the Washington Post is any indication, it’s the former rather than the latter.

One Fairfax County firefighter tripled his salary to more than $270,000 with overtime pay. A county police officer took home $175,000… A fire captain pocketed $163,000 in additional compensation, more than many of his colleagues make in a year. The eye-popping figures have prompted Fairfax County supervisors to review overtime pay and other compensation for employees as the county faces a budget squeeze. …more than 1,700 county employees who are not department heads earned more than $100,000 in 2016, according to county figures.

Needless to say, the unions representing these bureaucrats pushed back.

Public safety unions and officials strongly pushed back against the idea that overtime pay might be excessive, saying that some employees must work extra hours because of staffing shortages… Some were also rankled because many public safety employees have endured pay freezes in recent years and earn far less than many residents in one of the nation’s most expensive counties. “They are complaining about guys who are working overtime trying to make the median income for the jurisdiction,” said Joseph Woloszyn, president of the Fairfax County chapter of the Police Benevolent Association.

It’s certainly true that Fairfax is a rich county, driven in large part by the overpaid federal workforce, along with the various contractors, lobbyists, cronyists, and other insiders who have their snouts comfortably buried in the federal trough.

Given how all this unearned wealth distorts the local labor market, I have no problem with the idea that cops and firefighters presumably need to be paid more than the national average. After all, employers should pay what’s necessary to attract a sufficient number of qualified individuals to fill appropriate jobs.

This doesn’t mean, however, that 1,700 bureaucrats should be getting six-figure salaries. Or that police and fire departments are the right size.

Though I admit that this excerpt makes me wonder.

…the Fairfax County fire chief…said his department has been dealing with a chronic shortage of firefighters. Currently, he said, the department has 56 vacancies, forcing some to work shifts as long as 48 hours or be recalled to work each day.

In any event, I should count my lucky stars that I don’t live in Orange County, California, where the average firefighter is obscenely overpaid.

The bottom line is that firefighters and cops do real jobs and those jobs involve some danger. But that doesn’t mean they should be over-compensated.

P.S. And if you want good nationwide data on firefighters, here are some jaw-dropping numbers.

…vehicle fires declined 64 percent from 1980 to 2013. Building fires fell 54 percent during that time. When they break out, sprinkler systems almost always extinguish the flames before firefighters can turn on a hose. …as the number of fires has dropped, the ranks of firefighters have continued to grow — significantly. There are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago, but about 50 percent more people are paid to fight them. …Firefighters responded to 487,500 structure fires across the United States in 2013, which means each of the nation’s 30,000 fire departments saw just one every 22 days, on average. And yet, taxpayers are paying more people to staff these departments 24-7. As a result, the amount of money shelled out for local fire services more than doubled from 1987 to 2011, to $44.8 billion, accounting for inflation.

For what it’s worth, I very much suspect that the numbers in Fairfax County would match the nationwide data.

So it’s likely that firefighters (and cops) in Fairfax are overpaid. But it’s even more likely that there are too many of them given the possible dangers.

P.P.S. If you think libertarians are doctrinaire and impractical about firefighting, you’ll like this picture.

P.P.P.S. If you think firefighters are overpaid, you’ll like this video.

P.P.P.P.S. I don’t want to neglect police officers, so here’s some humor about a compassionate Pennsylvania cop and a Texas police exam. And here’s what to do if you need cops in a hurry.

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarianism”

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