Everybody has one … and they all stink

When it comes to firefighter salaries and pensions, those we serve have a mind to tell us what they think — and it's often that they don't think

Will Wyatt

It's officially summer and there are certain benchmarks you can always count on: the smell of charcoal, cookouts, vacations, cutting the grass and or course the municipal budget process.

I'd rather spend my vacation cutting grass at cookouts.

The silly season is already off to a flying start. In Houston, firefighters voted down a contract offer from the city in overwhelming fashion. Yet, the major battle for firefighter benefits this year appears to be in Memphis, Tenn.

Memphis is a large city. The fire department has about 1,500 personnel and about 55 stations. Memphis is the county seat of Shelby County and the home of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion.

I think of Magnolia blossoms and paddle wheeler boats when I think of Memphis, although I have never been there (and probably won't be invited after this).

The name game
It's the usual scenario as these things go. The city is short on funds and the fire department pensions and salaries are to blame for everything just short of holes in the ozone layer. The mayor wants to make a cut in the city's contribution in retiree health care.

I have been browsing some articles about Memphis on the "interweb" and I see all the usual verbiage: unfunded liability, rising costs of health care and, of course, public- vs private-sector jobs.

This time however, I have been reading the comment sections to see how a small sampling of the public feels. The authors' misguided perceptions were quite amusing.

I always end my columns with "Let me hear from you."

I mean that.

I welcome praise and criticism. I see things one way; you might see things another way. That isn't cause for a SWAT standoff.

However, some of the comments in Memphis are interesting to say the least. First, to comment you have to come up with a catchy name like Coolguy, Bigbiceps or Nobelwinner84. It's like the citizens band radio craze in the '70s — you had to have a cool name, or handle, as it was called.

Uneasy street
A lot of people think firefighters or police officers join the service, work 20 years and retire comfortably for the rest of their lives at taxpayers' expense. In all fairness, I have known a few who have done 20 and gotten out, but most went into jobs in the private sector or had their own business.

Typically, pensions pay a percentage of the salary. In the cycle of life, many get married, have 2.5 children, buy a house, raise children and at the end of it all hope to retire.

Like many firefighters, I have two jobs right now. I have had as many as four (at the same time) to support our family. So with two kids in school, a house mortgage and car note, I am going to retire at 20 years and make less money?

Plus, Memphis officials want to decrease insurance benefits to retirees. Mind you this is at a time in life when people need health care the most. As you grow older parts wear out.

To serve and …
One commenter wrote that firefighters and police officers are doing a job like anyone else. We are compensated for our danger. This commenter appreciated public service workers but also appreciated the waitress who brought his food and the plumber who makes what's left of the food go away.

I was worried for a minute I was going to be compared to a washing machine. Furthermore, he wrote, if people are not happy, change careers.

I knew in taking this job I would be exposed to danger; health risks; heart disease; cancer; work nights, weekends, holidays and birthdays; and not be home in times of disaster. I am not complaining or whining. I knew all this going in.

Out of curiosity I would like to know what this would-be career counselor thinks I could do at my age. I am in my 29th year and this is all the education, training and job experience I have. Maybe it's not too late to take up plumbing.

The unfunded liability cloud. That phrase is always bantered about in these things. It's the amount a city owes in pension contributions. The city owes $700 billion gazillion trillion in unfunded liability.

That just sounds bad; it conjures up images of riots, asteroids crashing into buildings and long lines for stale bread.

If everybody retired on the same day there would be a problem sustaining the pension — think stock market crash rush on the banks. I don't see 500 Memphis firefighters retiring on the same day.

Imagine coming in after a day off and finding the station empty. A city worker is sweeping up confetti off the floor. The cabinets are empty and the refrigerators are gone. The lights are off, the city janitor tells you: "Yep, everybody retired; you missed a heck of a party!"

In reality, as people draw pensions, new employees come in and older ones die off.

Crazy like a log
One commenter wrote: "Kill off the unions and reduce the ridiculous number of firemen. Fall off a log easy." Like the hamster in the ball in the commercial I don't know where to go with that.

An interesting comment came from an article about the Memphis P.D. having an informational website on pension issues. This commenter wrote that those who chose to chase crack heads as a career should look for something else.

Ouch! That hurt me. I bet this person would call 911 with lightning efficiency if a crack head tried to break into his house. Couldn't he have just made a doughnut joke?

I don’t have an answer to all this. I'm not a financial guru or pension expert. I do know that the boys and girls in Memphis work hard to serve the public as do all fire department.

I have been listening to Memphis radio traffic with my handheld computer that I occasionally make phone calls on. I think they deserve better than hearing Don Pardo tell them they qualify for a case of car wax after serving the residents for 30 years.

I'm Will Wyatt and I approve of this message. Let me hear from you.

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