A bit of an ironic twist is developing in San Mateo County: The same high costs that come with living in an area with high-quality public-safety workers are now, more than ever, driving those employees out.
The high cost of living in the Peninsula has long kept the majority of firefighters and police officers living outside the county, according to local unions. But now, city leaders are saying the workers are increasingly becoming fed up with aggravating commutes — commonly more than an hour each way — coupled with transportation costs the likes of which have never been experienced. Prices associated with transportation, such as gas and vehicle maintenance, have grown by 5.3 percent in the Bay Area since last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Furthermore, the turnover of public safety workers is hurting city budgets during a time when cities in the county are asking residents to pay higher rates and taxes to offset deficits.
In Burlingame, for instance, City Manager Jim Nantell said they have lost four police officers recently to departments in more affordable areas. For each of those departures, the city must reinvest a year of training for a replacement, which costs as much as $135,000 apiece and does not benefit the police force in any way until after the training is complete, he said.
“Particularly with the gasoline costs … we have to reconcile the fact that we are the training ground for the East Bay,” Nantell said about training officers only to see them leave for areas with cheaper housing. “It’s a major problem.”
In neighboring Millbrae, the Fire Department lost two firefighters recently to less expensive areas outside the county where the workers can afford to buy homes, said City Manager Ralph Jaeck. For a city looking to bridge an upcoming Fire Department deficit of more than $1 million, the departures represent $200,000 in losses for retraining officers.
San Bruno has also had a “pretty significant rate of turnover” among police officers, many of whom live outside the area, said City Manager Connie Jackson.
In response, Nantell is leading an effort to form a committee with city and hiring managers throughout the county to figure out how to create a solution — one he said has thus far been elusive. One option, he said, would be to build affordable housing designed specifically for those employees on city parking lots.
One effective measure has been implementing schedules with longer work days and three- or four-day weeks, said Ed Hawkins, president of the county’s firefighters’ union.
By the numbers
Cost of living in San Mateo County.
$872,500: Median cost of home in county in June
$1,751: Cost of two-bedroom apartment in county in June
$1,399: Cost of one-bedroom apartment in county in June
$100,000: Cost to train a new firefighter
$120,000-$135,000: Cost to train a new police officer
Sources: San Mateo County Housing Department, cities of Millbrae, Burlingame