Grand Rapids Fire Department, Michigan

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The Grand Rapids Fire Department in Grand Rapids, Michigan was comprised of 235 personnel as of its 2010 Annual Report.[1]

Salaries

Sunshine Review filed a public records request seeking salary information for the years 2008-2011 for members of the Grand Rapids Fire Department, particularly ranking officers. According to data provided by the department, the following salary ranges came into effect in 2009.[2]

  • Fire fighters earn a salary range of $38,269 - $58,467
  • Fire Equipment Operator earns a salary of $62,178
  • Fire Inspectors earn a salary range of $62,178 - $67,245
  • Fire Instructors earn a salary of $69,290
  • Fire Captains earn a salary of $71,333
  • Battalion Fire Chiefs earn a salary up to $76,027
    • Battalion Fire Chief earns a salary of $72,718
  • Deputy Fire Chiefs earn a salary up to $90,642
    • Deputy Fire Chief Laura Knapp (now fire chief) earns a salary of $86,698
  • Fire Chief Robert Vansolkema earns a salary of $117,364

According to Salary.com, the average salary for the Grand Rapids Fire Department was $41,514 as of 2011.[3]

Benefits

Sunshine Review filed a public records request seeking benefits information for the years 2008 - 2011 for employees of the Grand Rapids Fire Department. Although the city did not send a breakdown of the benefits it offers to its employees, they provided a breakdown of benefits offered to the fire chief, the deputy fire chief and the battalion fire chief.[4]

  • Fire Chief Robert Vansolkema spent $12,349 for health costs in 2010.
  • Deputy Fire Chief Laura Knapp (now acting fire chief) spent $13,032 for health costs in 2010.
  • Battalion Fire Chief Barton Perry spent 13,032 for health costs in 2010.

Car use

Sunshine Review filed a public records request seeking information on the number of take-home vehicles issued by the department to its employees. According to a city memo, the City of Grand Rapids Fire Department had 8 vehicles assigned for 24-hour use as of 2011.[5]

Phone use

Sunshine Review filed a public records request seeking information on the number of cellular and mobile devices issued by the department to its employees. According to a city memo, the department issued 21 cell phones to employees.[6] In January 2011 the city spent $56.05 for the fire chief's cell phone charges.[7]

Salary records project

In 2011, Sunshine Review chose 152 local governments as the focus of research on public employee salaries. The editors of Sunshine Review selected eight states with relevant political contexts (listed alphabetically):

1. California
2. Florida
3. Illinois
4. Michigan
5. New Jersey
6. Pennsylvania
7. Texas
8. Wisconsin

Within these states, the editors of Sunshine Review focused on the most populous cities, counties and school districts, as well as the emergency services entities within these governments. The purpose of this selection method was to develop articles on governments affecting the most citizens.

The salary information garnered from these states were a combination of existing online resources and state Freedom of Information Act requests sent out to the governments.

Importance of public employee pay disclosure

In July 2010, The Los Angeles Times uncovered that officials in Bell, California were making remarkably high salaries.[8] Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo was earning a yearly $787,637. It was later uncovered that Rizzo's total compensation after taking benefits into account topped $1.5 million a year.[9]

For comparison:[8]

  • Manhattan Beach, with about 7,000 fewer people than Bell, paid its most recent city manager $257,484 a year.
  • Long Beach, with a population close to 500,000, paid its city manager $235,000 annually.
  • Los Angeles County paid its chief executive, William T. Fujioka, $338,458.

Corruption solution

After this report was released, governments began to proactively disclose salary information of their employees. Before the end of the summer of 2010, more than a dozen cities in Orange County, for example, posted salary information on the front pages of their websites.[10]

The cost of transparency websites maintaining such information ranges from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. These websites also save money, and this often is not taken into account when measuring costs.

Citizens upset about the breach of trust and armed with information formed a group called the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, which pushed for an independent audit of city salaries and contracts.[11]

Citizens, empowered with information, are key to keeping government free from corruption and efficient. A study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia revealed that the city of Philadelphia has a problem with the efficiency and costs of public employee pensions.[12] The amount that Philadelphia pays to pension recipients limits the city’s ability to use its budget effectively.

The report revealed that there were more individuals receiving pension benefits—33,907 claimants in 2006—than workers in the city—28,701.[12] The authors of the study recommend three steps towards addressing the problem of high costs in pensions.[12] First, improve data collection so that decision-making in terms of pension policies is more informed. Second, promote transparency for better accountability to citizens. Third, reduce costs and use the savings for developing Philadelphia.

Resistance to public employee salary data as public records

The idea of making public employee salaries is relatively new. In 2008, several local government employee associations and unions protested the posting of state employee salaries by newspaper The Sacramento Bee.[13][14] At the time, it was seen as a safety risk and invasion of privacy.

Sunshine Review aims in posting salary information

Publicly posted salaries often leave out important information. Salary schedules can be published as ranges, not as specific take-home compensation, and high-level, highly-paid positions are often not disclosed proactively.[10][9] Additionally, salaries leave out compensation received through health and retirement benefits, as well as benefits such as commuter allowances and cell phone reimbursements. This project aimed to close the gap and provide a more accurate picture of public employee salaries for the sake of public education and transparency.

See also

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References