"I just want everyone to know who Matthew LaPlante is...
Matthew LaPlante isn't a journalist. He's out to hurt you... I believe this man is an ideologue who's out to hurt you, and he shouldn't be working in any major newspaper."
- Bill O'Reilly



PAYDAY BLUES

The risks are the same. The effort required is the same. But the salaries for public safety officials swing wildly in agencies across Salt Lake County.

Matthew D. LaPlante and Matt Canham
The Salt Lake Tribune
Feb. 6, 2005

Aside from the uniforms, which are two different shades of blue, they look much the same:

Large, muscular men. Square jaws and large mustaches. Five o'clock shadows at noon. Firefighters, a half-dozen of them huddled around a large gray table cluttered with newspapers and crossword puzzles.

They stuff oversized helpings of steak, pasta and salad into their mouths. It's leftovers day at Station 43.

They all eat from the same refrigerator, work out in the same weight room and clean their turnouts in the same industrial washer. Tonight, they'll sleep in the same quarters.

When the alarm sounds — as it does six, seven, eight times a day here —they share the same dangers.

But twice a month, the firefighters of Station 43 are reminded that their similarities end where their pocketbooks begin. On payday, the men in dark blue — employees of the Unified Fire Authority — will take home an average of $230 more than their light-blue-clad counterparts from South Salt Lake.

Over a year, the difference works out to be more than $5,600.

Though salary disparity is most obvious at Station 43, where firefighters from two agencies live under one roof, similar inequalities span Salt Lake County's public safety community.

A Salt Lake Tribune review of annual salaries for more than 950 firefighters and 1,450 police officers in 24 departments in Salt Lake County reveals vast differences in how much the first responders are paid.

Though public safety officers sometimes work only inches apart, their starting salaries from different agencies vary by as much as $9,600, a fact that influences which communities get the best recruits. Average annual pay for the frontline officers, those with no supervisory responsibility, differs by as much as $13,500, affecting morale and retention.

"Anybody who goes into law enforcement needs to understand that it is not about the money. You have to have some sort of passion to help people," says Marcos Garaycochea, a Salt Lake City police detective who, after two years, makes $34,632.

Garaycochea's salary is on the low end of the scale in Salt Lake City — the highest-paying city in the county — where officers make an average of $45,981. But even among relatively well-paid officers, money matters are often a point of contention.

Though Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard pays his deputies above the average in Salt Lake County, he doesn't think it's nearly enough.

Kennard's lowest-paid deputy receives $29,772 annually. But the sheriff figures $50,000 would be more appropriate because starting officers should be able to afford a good house in a safe neighborhood, without having to work extra jobs.

The bottom rung
No one in Salt Lake County, at this point, is paying Kennard's recommended minimum salary. In fact, no public safety department can even boast a $50,000 average salary for non-supervising officers.

Salt Lake City firefighters are close. They earn an average of $49,346 a year.

Others fare considerably worse. At the bottom is Sandy Fire, where the average firefighter makes only $35,862.

Though larger agencies generally pay more, working for a smaller agency does not necessarily mean receiving a smaller paycheck. Murray's department, which employs 55 frontline police officers, is the second-highest-paying law enforcement agency in the county. The Utah Highway Patrol, with 286 troopers on its payroll, is second from the bottom.

Why such disparity for those who do the same job? Taxes and politics.

Local governments employ a combination of taxes and fees, bringing in varying amounts of revenue. There is no best method to fatten the public purse. Methods that work in good times don't always hold up in weaker economic years. And tax increases are not popular.

Politics affects not only how money is raised — but how it is spent. Firefighters are regularly paid more than police officers. Cities pay officers overtime rather than hiring new recruits. Growing cities find it easier to offer pay raises than towns with stagnant economies.

In South Salt Lake, where Station 43's officers break bread with the better-paid county firefighters, times are tough.

"This city is very reliant on sales tax as the main source of income to fund public safety," South Salt Lake Fire Chief Steve Foote says. "When that goes flat, as it has in the past few years, it really hurts."

Foote's employees have gone four years without a raise — and the city recently stopped matching its employees' 401(k) contributions.

Chiefs not starving
Though he has great respect for Foote and his comrades in South Salt Lake, firefighter Jason D. Smith finally had to make a decision that would protect his family's financial security: He quit, after four years with the department.

Smith now works for the newly formed South Davis Metro Fire Department, at "a pretty dramatic increase" in salary and benefits, he says.

Foote says he has lost other officers to Salt Lake City and the Unified Fire Authority.

South Salt Lake police officers have made similar defections. Police Chief Theresa Garner says she sympathizes with their decision. "To me, family comes first. I understand if people are looking. I can't blame them."

Most chiefs share Garner's sympathy, remembering the days when they lived under a strict budget as junior officers. But on average, top public safety administrators earn more than twice what their rank-and-file officers make. Most take in about three times the salary of beginning officers.

Forty-three fire and police administrators each made more than $80,000 last year, and dozens more brought home at least $75,000.

Unlike most private-sector employees, the majority of police officers and firefighters are eligible to retire with a pension after 20 years — taking 50 percent of their annual pay for the rest of their lives.

Salt Lake City police officer Jeff Webb plans to do just that. After 15 years on the force, Webb is at the top of the pay scale for non-supervisory officers. He makes $53,102 annually and is hoping to get promoted to sergeant before he retires in five years.

"That is one of the incentives with this particular work — reaping a windfall afterward," he says.

That windfall is dependant on an officer's final salary, however. Those who put in 20 years at better-paying departments can make thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — more in retirement than their associates from lower-paying departments.

Moonlighting
Most firefighters and police officers do not live off their base pay alone, electing to pad their income with overtime and off-duty work.

In West Valley City, for instance, only one of 76 officers did not receive some overtime pay in 2004. Most took in thousands in overtime and four made more than $10,000 in extra-hours work.

But Salt Lake City, the king of salaries, is also the king of overtime and part-time employment. One Salt Lake City police officer pulled in $15,000 in overtime in 2004. A total of 27 Salt Lake City officers added at least $10,000 of overtime to their paychecks last year, with the pay coming from working federal task forces, extra shifts and testifying in court.

Salt Lake City, which employs 380 officers and sergeants, also coordinates part-time employment paying at least $20 an hour for officers wishing to supplement their income in the private sector. And officers often set up other public safety-related side jobs, such as providing security at the Delta Center. They are not required to disclose publicly how much they make.

In one extreme case last year, one Salt Lake City officer who makes $47,000 annually also got paid $10,000 in overtime and $21,000 for part-time work at University of Utah special events — for a total of $78,000. The same officer is listed in Utah Department of Commerce records as the director of an Orem-based development company.

Firefighters do not generally make as much in overtime, though extra hours are not hard to find. In Midvale, for instance, none of the city's 31 firefighters earned less than $1,800 in overtime last year — and several made more than $5,000. Most also report working extra jobs during their extended off hours.

Firefighters and police officers say these additions to their paycheck are vital to keeping them financially afloat, but for many of them, the supplemental income allows "a lifestyle of comfort," says Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse.

But things are not always comfortable.

South Salt Lake Fire Capt. Lane Schoenfeld generally shrugs off the good-natured ribbing he gets from his darker-uniformed counterparts at Station 43, where Unified Fire Authority pay stubs are sometimes left in plain sight — just as an extra reminder.

"That's not what reminds me, though," says Schoenfeld. "What reminds me is every time I walk into the door of my part-time job."

Schoenfeld, a large, balding man with a bushy red mustache, moonlights as a plumber at an area hospital. His annual firefighter salary falls more than $11,000 below that of the Unified Fire Authority's lowest-paid captain — and is $9,000 less than the average countywide.

But when the alarm sounds, Schoenfeld will put in the same effort as his associates.

All shades of blue look the same when lives are on the line. Only the green differs.