Sean Campbell: Addressing confusion and mistaken assumptions about Measure F

This is in response to D. Ziegler’s letter titled “Fifth AFD Bond?” in the Aug. 5 Mad River Union. 

My goal in this letter is to address some of the self-admitted confusion that Ms. Ziegler refers to in her letter. I appreciate the research she has done and thank her for the gratitude she mentions in her article.

Health insurance

Arcata Fire District (AFD) pays for health insurance for all full time safety employees. There are multiple tiers of coverage for this benefit while employees are working and when they retire. As insurance costs increased, health insurance benefits were self-cut by employees. Employees are always seeking comparable insurance that is less expensive but in Humboldt County, that is hard to find. AFD covers the cost of health insurance for full-time employees and has absorbed increases as they occurred. The different tiers have come, over the year, as cuts were made. 

Health insurance and post-retirement health insurance was the standard for employees hired in the 1990s and early 2000s. An employee hired today is offered health insurance while working and receives health insurance when they retire (age 57) until the reach Medicare enrollment age (65). AFD has an opt-out option for employees who may have access to insurance through their spouse.

In the letter by Ms. Ziegler, she reports a 29 percent increase in health insurance. I do not know where this number came from. 

The following reflect the actual health insurance adjustments since 2016: 2016 (21.3 percent increase), 2017 (3.1 percent increase), 2018 (-0.8 percent decrease), 2019 (6.5 percent increase), 2020 (-0.7 percent decrease). As required by contract, AFD has absorbed the increases and saved money when there were decreases.

When comparing AFD health insurance benefits to other fire districts, the benefit are competitive and comparable. AFD pay higher rates in Humboldt County than other counties. Some agencies have better coverage and some have traded to a lesser coverage in exchange for higher salaries. 

Determining what is reasonable and customary is very subjective. One may argue that these benefits are very expensive and it is not reasonable to cover such benefits. Others may argue these benefits are fair for someone who is exposed to severe traumatic injury, excessive chemicals, carcinogens, and toxins. I would ask everyone to consider both arguments as valid. 

I believe most can agree that health insurance is outrageously priced and the system is beyond broken, especially in Humboldt County. AFD employees consistently shop for options to save costs in this category. However, the health insurance provided by AFD is good insurance that provides fair coverage for its employees. AFD employees have not found comparable insurance for a lesser cost. Deductibles are set with PERS Insurance so this is not an option for saving money on premiums.

Having done this work for 30 years now, I can tell you it is hard on the mind and body. Studies show firefighters die ten years earlier than the average citizen does. There are many reasons for this but the most common are cancer, heart disease, suicide and stroke. Firefighters are 1.4 to 2.02 times at greater risk to get specific cancers than the general American public. 

I have personally witnessed many of my mentors die shortly after they left the fire service. All died of cancer and one died of a heart attack. 

Obviously, I am biased but I would argue fairness in health insurance for retirees after they served 30 to 40 years as a career firefighter with many serving another 20 years as a volunteer firefighter. That is a lot of exposure to nasty stuff, mentally and physically. Having shared that, I would argue post-retirement health insurance is reasonable for firefighters who work a full career. In certain circumstances, some of these illnesses may be covered under workers compensation, but this becomes far more difficult once an employee retires. Typically, this is when firefighters begin to struggle with these illnesses. One of AFD’s youngest firefighters just returned to work after battling cancer for the last year. Firefighters live this reality every day.

AFD provides dental insurance ($141.91/month family) and is self-insured vision ($280/year) for full-time career employees. Once the employee retires, they no longer receive dental or vision. In my opinion, both of these appear to be reasonably priced.

Social Security and Medicare

Full-time safety employees do not pay into or receive Social Security. AFD employees opted out of Social Security long ago. Even though many have 10 to 20 years of paying into it before they became firefighters. 

Those who paid into it pre-fire service, automatically have their Social Security benefit cut by 50 percent when they reach benefit age. Employees pay 50 percent of their Medicare cost.

Property sales

I apologize for beating a dead horse on this topic because I have covered it multiple times in past letters. 

AFD has never owned property at 11th and M streets or at Foster and Sunset avenues. The Arcata Volunteer Firefighters Association owned the Sunset Street property and sold it to use the money for the Arcata and McKinleyville Fire Station renovations. 

AVFA still owns the property at 11th and M Sstreets and rents most of it to pay down the $1.7 million in debt service that was taken out to renovate Arcata and McKinleyville Stations. Both of these projects were done using donations, bequests, fundraising monies, and a loan. 

AFD did not pay for the station renovations using tax dollars. However, AFD rents the Arcata Fire Station for $8,000/month from AVFA and the rent money is used to pay down the loan. $8,000/month is fair market value for this commercial property. 

AFD owns property in Bayside and this property is for sale. This was purchased under Chief Murphy’s (1980s) tenure to protect reserves and potentially add a fire station. AFD owns the Mad River and McKinleyville Fire Stations.

PERS retirement and unfunded liability

Included in the AFD budget is a substantial amount for unfunded CALPERS liability ($365,000). There is another line item for CALPERS Retirement ($333,000). Ms. Ziegler’s numbers are from a previous budget year and the numbers I am providing are from this budget year (2021/2022). 

I agree that these are high-cost items. Unfunded liability is the difference between CALPERS projected investment and actual return on investment. 

To summarize, they didn’t make as much as they thought on the investment and AFD is responsible for their fair portion. This an extremely basic summary as it is MUCH more complicated than my brief explanation. Public retirements are a bittersweet benefit. Bitter in the fact they are expensive and they never seem to go away. 

Unfunded liabilities are a huge topic in today’s economy. Understandable. These liabilities were created more than 40 years ago when employees were promised a public pension, worked an entire career, and then they retired. These retirements were promised and they cannot be taken away. 

The good news is we recognized this and changes have been made and continue to be made to fix the problem. 

Unfortunately, these fixes are not overnight and they commonly take 20 to 30 years to correct.  Not only did AFD employees self-correct their retirement benefit, the State also mandated changes to the system. Regardless of the many changes made, retirement benefits are expensive.

In full disclosure, I am one of the classic employees who don’t pay for my retirement. This is the primary reason why I have remained at Arcata Fire District for my entire career. The second reason is the health insurance benefit I receive. The third reason is I wanted to live in Humboldt County and raise my family here. 

I have had multiple opportunities to leave and work for another fire department at double or triple the salary. My benefits kept me at AFD. I was willing to accept the lower salary because the benefits were good. Had my benefits been cut, I would have left without question. This fact must be considered when we discuss the cost of benefits. 

Employee benefits are expensive. If you offer comparable and competitive salary and benefits, you will be more likely to retain employees for a career. Since AFD employees and the state began cutting benefits, the incentive to stay at AFD for a career has diminished. AFD salaries are not comparable and competitive to other fire departments in the state. 

Firefighters can leave AFD and work almost anywhere else in the state for a much higher salary and comparable benefits. We recently lost a senior fire captain who had the “classic” benefit package. He left to work for a salary that is double what he made at AFD. He still works in Humboldt County.

We must consider the loss on investment when a long-time employee leaves AFD to work somewhere else. When you lose an employee that has 10, 15, or 20 years with AFD, we must consider more than the salary and benefit cost. 

Yes, we will replace the employee with a less expensive employee at the bottom who has cheaper benefits and a lower salary. In the case of a fire captain leaving, we promote a firefighter to a captain and we hire a less expensive firefighter at the bottom. 

Now, let us review the loss. Institutional knowledge is the first. Senior employees know the ins and outs and intricacies of the fire district. Where are the hydrants, where are the target hazards, what the inside of buildings look like and where are the occupants, what resources are available to assist, what are my teams specialties, who can I use to fill two assignments on an incident, what does this patients symptoms indicate, etc… 

Experience is everything in this line of work. Firefighters make life and death decisions and the public expects perfection when we respond. The public deserves perfection. When the community loses an experienced firefighter, they lose all of the money they have invested in that firefighter and all of the knowledge the firefighter carried, which was specific to Arcata Fire District. Talk about adding to unfunded liability. 

When AFD loses a long-time career member to another fire department who pays double or triple the salary, it adds to the unfunded liability in a huge way. We have to retain our firefighters or we are throwing money away!

Four bonds?

This may be semantics, but AFD does not have bonds. 

Property owners in the fire district have a 1997 special tax and a 2006 benefit assessment on their property tax bill. Neither of these self-imposed funding measures have an inflation factor. This means the money will only last so long before inflation catches up to it and that time passed long ago at AFD. 

Hence, the reason AFD has been deficit spending for three years. I agree property taxes and insurance go up every year. Fuel, groceries, clothing, utilities, etc… go up every year. AFD’s budget does not keep up with inflation, which is why AFD has to ask for another self-imposed funding measure- Measure F.

Call volume

In 2019, AFD ran 3,860 calls. Not all of these were fires. I can see why Ms. Ziegler was confused. That would be many fires. Approximately 45 percent are EMS, 5 percent are fires, and the balance are miscellaneous calls such as lift assist, power lines down, etc…

Insurance costs

Ms. Ziegler is correct when she says insurance costs go up every year. That has been my experience with my personal policies. In his opinion column, Jack Durham was referring to the massive increase that will occur if AFD doesn’t restore its staffing. 

The Insurance Services Office (ISO) rates AFD every five years. The last rating occurred in 2015, shortly after AFD began staffing the Arcata Station. AFD improved to a Class 3/3Y. 

If AFD is not able to reopen its third station, they will drop back to a Class 4, which will result in a significant increase in insurance. If Measure F fails, AFD is looking at selling specialty equipment such as the ladder truck. AFD will also consider placing all on-duty firefighters at one station, which would leave Arcata and McKinleyville Stations closed. 

This will have a drastic impact on the ISO rating and everyone’s insurance premiums. We all have a choice to invest in our fire department or accept the consequences.

COVID

We all understand COVID and the impact it has on our economy. We empathize with our neighbors and businesses who have been impacted to such extremes. Unfortunately, AFD has no choice but to ask for a funding measure to maintain the essential service it provides. 

Chief McDonald and the AFD Board of Directors have been transparent from the beginning. They have no secrets and there is nothing to hide. All of their contracts, budgets, and board minutes are on the AFD webpage. 

Bottom line, AFD is broke and needs community support or services will be lost and public safety will be impacted. Without a fire department that is adequately staffed, the risk is higher and the loss will be greater.

$3,000 signs?

I was surprised by this paragraph in Ms. Ziegler’s letter. The station-closed signs that are hung in the fire station window when the station is closed was donated by a local business. The sign has a value of $70. 

I have no idea where Ms. Ziegler came up with $3,000 to $4,000 for the sign cost. To accuse AFD of spending that much money is mind-blowing.

Measure F

AFD is asking the community to approve Measure F in November. The typical single-family residence will see an increase of $98/year on their tax bill if they vote yes. This is 26 cents per day. 

Are you willing to risk your family, property, neighbor, or community for 26 cents a day? I would hope not. I ask that you support AFD and the dedicated firefighters who serve this organization with your YES vote in November.

Sean Campbell is a Battalion Chief with the Arcata Fire District and has 30 years in the fire service. He is a certified Chief Fire Officer through the State Fire Marshal’s Office and has been serving our community as a firefighter, coach and volunteer since 1990.

 







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