Mayor Pat Morris reacts to proceedings regarding the city’s finances during a city council meeting in San Bernardino July 16, 2012. (File Photo)

Special Report

Tim Reid, Cezary Podkul and Ryan McNeill, Reuters
Posted: 11/25/2012 04:49:36 PM PST

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Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part special report on how a vicious circle of self-interest sank San Bernardino.

SAN BERNARDINO – In 2009, police patrol Lt. Richard Taack retired at age 59 after 37 years of service.

He took home $389,727 that year, including $194,820 in unused sick time and $33,721 for unused vacation time, according to city payroll records.

Taack’s 2009 income was nearly double that of the city’s entire street-sweeping department. In 2011, overtime pay alone for the Police Department – $2,766,175 – exceeded the total payroll of 12 other city departments, according to a Reuters analysis of payroll data.

Taack didn’t respond to requests for comment.

It’s an example of what’s at the core of the city’s deep financial troubles, and a question that has different answers depending on who you talk to: Where has the money gone in San Bernardino?

“I can’t begrudge the man for receiving what he’s entitled to under the contract,” said David Green, the head road sweeper, who has seen his department cut to five people from 13 when he joined in 1995.

But he said there should be a better balance between the safety forces and other departments. “Nobody wants to drive a car and have to hit a three-foot pothole.”

Indeed, potholes scar downtown. Many stores are shuttered. Abandoned lots sit unkempt. Since the bankruptcy filing, city finance officials have put forward proposals to close libraries, senior centers and a cemetery.

Interim City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller told the City Council this past summer that 250 non-safety positions had been eliminated in the past three years to save money – and implied that police and fire benefits were crowding out other essential services.

“I believe that city buildings, roads, trees and parks that have begun to show neglect would deteriorate further if more cuts are made,” Travis-Miller said.

The police and fire unions fiercely dispute the charge that large salaries and pensions are to blame for the predicament. They point to the housing market crash, which left the city with the fourth-worst foreclosure rate in the country.

Scott Moss, head of the firefighters union, said 20 positions had already been cut from the Fire Department, leaving about 120 people.

“There’s been mismanagement for years,” Moss said over coffee in a local restaurant.

He noted that Mayor Pat Morris had majority support on the council for six years until union-backed members regained a majority in March. “The mayor and his people are trying to make us look bad.”

Moss, 46, a fire paramedic, said he might retire at 53. Payroll records show a base pay of $94,500, and total 2011 wages, with overtime, of about $147,000. Moss confirmed the base figure but didn’t comment on the overtime number.

Sick of the blame

Moss said he is sick of people blaming pensions.

“You go to bankruptcy, you got to blame somebody. So they say it’s the benefits, it’s the overtime – it’s everybody but them,” Moss said. “But what have they been doing these last six years?”

On sick-pay cash-outs, Moss said: “If you call in sick, you’re a bad employee. So my guys don’t call in sick. Then you get all this time you are owed – and you get vilified.”

He added: “This is a dangerous city. It’s an old, decayed city. It burns. There are gangs. The pay and benefits attract the police and firefighters it needs. Without them, you lose all the good ones. That’s the balance.”

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