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Saturday, January 01, 2011 2:33 PM


In Praise of Volunteer Fire Departments (Do we really need paid union fire departments anywhere? What about police?)


In response to "Crash Tax" Ripoff Expands in California and New York I received an email from "MB" a 20 year career police officer and firefighter who writes ...

Hello Mish

I have been an avid reader of your blog for the last. I place great value on your economic analysis particularly in regards to the dangers of unbridled debt accumulation. I am a police officer and firefighter with more than 20 years of service behind me. I am a member of a union though I am definitely not a union proponent. Our pension is entirely funded by member contributions. The city I work for has not contributed a dime to it in over 17 years.

There is no doubt that some police and fire unions are very insensitive to the strains they place on taxpayers. I for one do not believe in government taking from others to pay for my retirement. Considering that you read numerous accounts of greedy union bosses, I can understand some of your less than flattering characterizations of those in my profession.

Though I absolutely agree that charging accident victims for emergency response is double dipping the taxpayer, your comments insisting that anyone could competently do my job on whim to get out of property taxes is ludicrous. If one of your loved ones was trapped in a burning building or held by a violent criminal, would you be content have your neighbor the tax attorney try to save them?

Happy New Year
MB
Trapped Loved Ones

I expected a lot of flak over that post, yet that mild rebuttal was all that came in. Let's start with "MB's" final question: "If one of your loved ones was trapped in a burning building or held by a violent criminal, would you be content have your neighbor the tax attorney try to save them?"

Of course not. I never implied I would. That does not mean I want to pay union salaries or wages either. I certainly would not be opposed to having trained sheriffs respond to someone being held by a violent criminal. And I would not mind having someone from a volunteer fire department respond to an accident or fire.

73% of Firefighters are Volunteers Already

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 73 percent of firefighters in the United States are members of Volunteer Fire Fighters.

I fail to see why 95% or even 99% percent of them could not be. Perhaps some would not do it for property tax reductions. Perhaps it depends on what one's property taxes are. Perhaps not. Those 73% right now get nothing at all!

Let's look at it another way. How many would do it for tax rebates plus $500 a month tax free to both state and federal government?

With unemployment at 10% and underemployment at 20%, I bet I could fill every fire department in the country.

Would those people require training? Of course they would. Moreover, we would need a phase-in transition period to get to an all-volunteer state. I would not want all rookies, nor would anyone else. Thus, we could not get to 99% overnight. Could we get there in 5-7 years? Yes, we could.

Pensions

MB claimed "Our pension is entirely funded by member contributions".

No, it's not. It is 100% funded by taxpayers. Taxpayers pay 100% of police and firefighters' salary. Police and firefighters put some of their salary into a pension plan (percentage widely varies by city), but the source of the money is the taxpayer.

"MB's" particular case may be different, but most often the city (taxpayers) contribute the vast majority of what goes into these plans. Even in cases where the police and firefighter contributes 100%, it is important to recognize that money that comes from taxpayers who pay police and fire salaries.

Finally, if one took the typically paltry union-member contributions and totaled them up, it would come to far less than the untenable pension benefits that have been promised. That is exactly the source of the pension underfunding right now.

Certainly, not every plan is overly generous. Perhaps "MB's" plans is one of them. However, in cases where cities are in financial trouble, the very first place to look for reasons why is untenable wage and benefit packages of public union workers in general (not just police and fire).

My statements do not imply in any way, shape, or form, those police and fire officers are anything but dedicated, hard-working, employees. I suspect most of them are.

I only make the case the plans (in general), are far too generous and have bankrupted numerous cities.

Comments From My Blog

Docberg Writes ...
We had a volunteer department in my home town in its pre-yuppie invasion days, and they were highly trained and very effective. When I was a city administrator, I had both a volunteer fire department and a volunteer rescue squad. Both were staffed with some highly motivated and competent people. But, this was not in California.
Ron Writes ...
Ditto on the volunteer firefighters. We have had them in our community for years and I never felt like we were at a disadvantage. These people donate their time and money to serve their community. They go through extensive training.

I salute all of the volunteer firefighters in our country thank them for their service.
BB Writes ...
Mish - local volunteers are the best 1st responders out there!

When I was 16, my best bud from down the road was T-boned as he
turned into my driveway. The local farmer, volunteer, and 1st responder
was the first adult person on the scene. He ripped the door off the cracked
up Ford Ranger like tinfoil, and administered CPR/1st aid to my buddy.

These volunteers get no union, no pension, no pay.

When I was 29 I woke up at 3am writhing in pain with what I thought
was an appendix bursting. 1st responder? Volunteer EMT/firefighter from
the farm 1/4 mile to the north of me. We cut and split wood every year
together for the last 2 years, as well as hunting the same property together.

My point? know your neighbors because you will depend on them to survive.
Dedicated fire professionals do not want to hear they can be replaced by volunteers, but clearly they can.

Can police officers be replaced by volunteers? In some instances, quite easily. A prime example would be traffic direction duties at events and games. I bet many volunteers would gladly direct traffic for a couple of free tickets to games or concerts. There certainly is no reason to pay police to do those duties, often on overtime.

Can on-call volunteers replace police in a shootout? For the sake of argument let's assume no. However, I bet I could get many Libertarians to say "why not?" Either way, there is nothing that implies the need for unions or excessive pension benefits to the point cities are going bankrupt.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com
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