Privatize San Bernardino’s EMS services

July 13, 2012

The City Council of San Bernardino, California, has declared its intent to file for bankruptcy and has issued a fascinating document that outlines the steps it would take to regain fiscal solvency. It’s a very creative and orderly attempt to reshape the finances of the government.

Proposals include a tax on phone service, estimated to raise $6.7 million dollars a year; a comprehensive asset plan to set market-rate rents for some city-owned properties and below-market-rate leases for others to create incentives for development; an increase in fees for false alarms that police respond to; and the outsourcing of tree trimming, street sweeping, graffiti abatement, streetlight maintenance and trash collection.

Although these ideas could raise new revenues, they do not really address the most burdensome parts of San Bernardino’s budget.

San Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. Morris said on Southern California Public Radio yesterday that the city’s public employee wages were especially “lucrative.” Although city employees agreed in 2010 to a 10 percent wage reduction for two years, the firemen’s union had told him to “pound sand” and sued the city to restore the previous wage level. It’s clear from this episode that even though San Bernardino firefighters were paid an average salary of $146,359 in 2010, they are entirely unwilling to help the city escape its fiscal black hole.

Morris had mentioned in a press conference on Tuesday that he and the city council have considered merging the city police and fire departments with those of nearby communities or with the county’s. This could be a very smart approach, since about half the city’s general fund expenses are dedicated to fire and police services. The city paid its frontline police workers an average of $110,099 in 2010. If nearby communities, or the county sheriff, have lower staffing costs, this could be an important source of savings.

Although fire departments are thought of as primarily putting out fires, about 70 percent of their incident calls are related to emergency medical responses and rescues, according to a 2009 report from the National Fire Protection Association (page 8). According to salary data filed with the California State Controller’s Office, San Bernardino employed 42 firemen-paramedics at an average salary of $134,331 in 2010. A 2003 report from the Reason Foundation found that privatizing EMS services doesn’t necessarily mean that fire-paramedic employees would have no job after privatization (page 11):

Both private providers bidding for contracts and the public officials who hire them are sensitive to public sector job security, so great pains are taken to avoid layoffs. When a city opts for privatization, a private provider will generally retain the vast majority – and in many cases all – of the formerly public employees. Often, cities award contracts to private providers on the condition that they hire the entire existing workforce, and make future staff reductions only through attrition or for cause.

The key for San Bernardino is to remove itself from unsustainable union collective bargaining agreements and get labor costs down to a manageable level. It can do this through either merging or privatizing city services, or both. Or it can throw out labor contracts and some pension obligations during bankruptcy. San Bernardino needs every tool at its disposal, and privatizing EMS would be a good place to start.

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see