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Fire board approves raises, questions pay totals

Board member asks how much paid leave employees receive

The board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District voted unanimously at its July meeting to give a 3 percent base raise to most of its non-union employees, even as board members said they have no idea how much in total compensation those employees would receive.

The 3 percent base raise will go to the district's chief officers and other non-union employees. Those employees will also be eligible for merit raises unless they are at the top of their salary range, but the staff report did not mention how much those raises might be.

"This is not a salary increase of 3 percent," said board member Chuck Bernstein, noting that he doesn't know how much the total increase will be. "I thought we didn't have COLAs (cost of living adjustments). I thought we didn't have automatic increases," he said, adding that he also "is not clear" how the district determines raises.

Because the board isn't consulted on, or even told the amount budged for, merit raises "it seems like we really don't have any say in how much compensation is going up," he said.

"I think Director Bernstein raises an important issue," said board President Peter Carpenter, who pointed out that the staff report did not say what the district budgets for pay raises and the amount is not obvious in the district's budget.

Kathleen Jackson, the district's administrative services manager, told the board that raises for the employees in question total about 5 percent.

"We need more clarity on this," Carpenter said. "There's still a gap between what's written in the staff report and what we and the public understand."

Board members asked for more information at a future meeting.

Other pay

Another issue obscuring district compensation totals is what employees are paid beyond wages. A document released by the district in April shows that in 2016, almost every district employee received "other pay," in amounts ranging from a low of $1,643 for an employee who appears to have been hired near the end of the year, to a high of $108,408.

Much of that "other pay" comes from the district's annual leave policy, which caps the amount of annual leave that can be accrued and automatically "cashes out" any additional hours each January. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, Chief Harold Schapelhouman says the district paid 71 of its 126 employees a total of $588,202 as annual leave cash-outs.

How much annual leave, which includes vacation and sick days, is accrued each year differs by job classification. The lowest amount given to new employees is nearly six weeks a year, 228 hours. Annual leave tops out at more than two months a year, or 372 hours, for those at battalion chief level or higher with 19 years or more on the job.

Most 40-hour-a-week employees are cashed out after accruing more than 500 hours of annual leave, but members of the firefighters' union who work 40 hours a week get cash for their accumulated annual leave hours once they have 320 hours saved.

Firefighters who work 56-hour weeks get cash once they have accrued more than 720 hours.

"I think there's too much vacation here," board member Bernstein said at the July 18 meeting, adding that it is not possible for employees to take all their leave. "Compensation ought to be compensation and vacation ought to be vacation," he said. "To me this is compensation, not vacation."

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