RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
TV could provide a welcome escape from all the talk about the fiscal cliff and looming spending cuts. But probably not for the people of Contra Costa County here in California, where the talk about the cost of government is hard to escape because it's about their firefighters. Residents are asking: What exactly is a firefighter worth? Caitlin Kenney from our Planet Money team reports.
CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: Station 6 in Contra Costa has just gotten a call.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Back side of Premier Inn.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Copy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)
KENNEY: The emergency is at the Premier Inn, which is basically the opposite of what the name suggests. It's an old dingy-looking motel. There's no smoke, no fire here. The local EMTs and the police have already arrived.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What's happening, guys?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Not much.
KENNEY: The problem, it turns out, is on the second floor. An unresponsive man, possible overdose. One firefighter starts pricking his finger, taking blood, trying to figure out what's going on.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Hey, what's your name?
KENNEY: The strange thing about this scene is that there's a giant fire truck parked outside just sitting there. Two of the three firefighters here are standing around with not much to do. And that's not unusual. Before we got here, Don Johansen, who drives the fire truck, was telling me that most the calls they get these days aren't for fire.
DON JOHANSEN: Shift after shift, and it's just medical call, medical call, medical call. You know, finally, at some point, somebody will go, man, we haven't had a fire in a while.
KENNEY: The fact is they aren't as many fires as there used to be. Smoke alarms, sprinklers and new building codes have changed life for firefighters. And that's got people here asking, if the fire department is changing, why is it still costing us so much?
That 40-foot truck outside the motel is one very visible cost. But one of the biggest costs for the fire department is something you can't see - the pensions.
Back when California's economy was booming, the firefighters here in Contra Costa asked for a much sweeter pension deal. And they got it. It was 2002, property values were climbing and the retirement system was making good money on its investments.
The deal meant the firefighters would have to pay more into their pensions but they would get back much more when they retired - up to 80 percent of their final year's salary.
And that right there says Dan Borenstein, a columnist for the local newspaper, was the start of the problem.
DAN BORENSTEIN: What did you create by that increased benefit? You suddenly created this huge obligation for the system for which there wasn't money that had been set aside.
KENNEY: This was happening all across the country - local governments making lots of promises to their workers based on the assumption good times would go on forever.
As we know, they did not. The housing market crashed. The fire department is funded by property taxes. The stock market crashed, the firefighter pension fund took a huge hit on its investments.
So this year, the firefighters decided to ask voters for help. They put a measure on the ballot asking everyone who owns a house to pay an extra 75 bucks a year. And they thought: this will be easy, people love us. Here's the firefighters' union president Vince Wells.
VINCE WELLS: People during Thanksgiving they'll bring stuff, on Christmas. People that live in the community around the station bring us food and stuff all the time.
KENNEY: And the firefighters had a compelling argument. If you don't approve this tax, we'll have to close fire stations. That means it will take us longer to get to you. Here's Vince Wells again, during a televised debate.
WELLS: We are the ones who are on the other end of the 911 call. And I'm the one at the door where I'm being screamed at for - by mom about hurry up, he's upstairs, and what took you so long? And that's going to happen more often.
KENNEY: But what the firefighters didn't realize was just as the nature of their job had changed, the way people felt about them was also changing. The voters weren't as worried about fires, really. The voters were really worried about money, and there was an aggressive campaign forming against the firefighters.
Dan Borenstein, the local newspaper columnist, was writing editorials telling people to vote no on the tax. And the local taxpayers association got personal. It published the names of everyone in the county who was making more than $100,000 a year from their pensions. They called it The $100,000 Club.
One of those names, retired fire captain Jaad Ajlouny. Jaad says being a firefighter used to mean people wanted to buy you drinks. Now...
JAAD AJOLUNY: Just sitting around in a bar, you know, minding my own business and a guy yells over: Hey, Jaad, come on over here and buy me a drink with that retirement I paid for.
KENNEY: It got to the point where people resented the argument the firefighters were making. Matt Heavy works in construction in the area and he's had a tough couple years.
MATT HEAVY: I felt hostage. They put it to where it was either pay the extra money or we're going to start shutting down stations. And the bottom line is the reason that they're asking for money is because the pensions are just skyrocketing.
KENNEY: Lots of people agreed with Matt and in the end, the tax increase didn't pass. The fire department is stuck. They can't touch the pensions. They're legal contracts. State law says they're impossible to break.
One of their only options is to shrink. So the fire department is closing four stations. And they are considering other cost savings, like putting paramedics in fire stations instead of firefighters, using part-time firefighters instead of salaried firefighters. They're becoming a smaller department for leaner times.
Caitlin Kenney, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.