There's a good argument to be made that Donn Thompson is the most well paid firefighter in the history of the United States.
The argument begins with this 1996 Los Angeles Times story, where Thompson was highlighted as a prime example of what the paper called "paycheck generosity" at the Los Angeles Fire Department. From 1993 through 1995, the Times found, Thompson had made $219,649 in overtime pay. At the time, the department was spending more than $58 million annually on overtime, an amount the paper called "budget-wrenching" and that far surpassed what other fire departments in big cities (like the Fire Department of New York, which at the time paid about one-third as much in overtime, the Times said).
Fast-forward to 2009, when the Los Angeles Daily News reported that the LAFD's overtime budget had grown by more than 60 percent in a decade. Once again, Thompson was riding business class on the gravy train, earning "$173,335 in overtime in addition to his nearly $100,000 base salary while working at Fire Station 19 on Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood," the paper reported. That was after making $190,256 in overtime during 2007 and $206,685 in 2006.
After another seven years, the only thing that's changed is Thompson's position. He made $307,541 in overtime pay last year, according to data released Monday by Transparent California, a watchdog project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free market think tank. Still, that was only good enough for third place. Edging just ahead of Thompson for 2016 are Charles Ferrari and James Vlach, who each made more than $330,000 in overtime pay during 2016, on top of regular salaries that topped $120,000. Ferrari, Vlach, and Thompson collected more overtime pay than anyone else included in the 600,000 public employees in Transparent California's database.
It's not a perfect comparison because the cities operate under different union contracts and have differently sized budgets, but the LAFD spent more than 38 percent of its budget on overtime pay last year, while the Fire Department of New York reported spending less than 20 percent of its total budget on overtime (other major city fire departments reported lower percentages). There are 30 LAFD employees in Transparent California's database who made more than $315,000 in base pay plus overtime last year—that's the amount paid to New York's best-paid firefighter in 2016.
And that's why Thompson is not just the most well paid firefighter in Los Angeles during the past two decades, but likely the best paid in the whole country. Messages left for Thompson at the fire station where he works were not returned Monday and other attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.
In 2014, when the San Diego Union-Tribune featured Thompson in a story about runaway overtime costs at California fire departments, he told the paper that he "basically lived at the station" and didn't go home very often.
"The first thing [people] think of is firefighters sitting around at the station, but they're not just handing out free money over here," Thompson said. "I'm working hard."
The Los Angeles Times found quite the opposite when it investigated the overtime pay issues at the department. In the 1996 article, the Times said most overtime hours are not connected to "fires or other emergencies. Instead, most of it goes for replacing those who are out because of vacations, holidays, injuries, training, illnesses or personal leaves."
Sure, you don't want to have an understaffed fire station when an emergency could arise at any time, but it sure seems like the overtime situation at the Los Angeles Fire Department could have been solved by now if there was an interest in doing so.
"The issue is not a lack of solutions," says Bob Fellner, research director for Transparent California. hose have been forthcoming from a coalition of experts, including those from LAFD's own ranks, for decades. The issue is lack of a political will for the precise reason an official outlined nearly two decades ago: fear of political retaliation."
Without the will to change anything, the problem just keeps getting worse. In 2012, there were 51 employees of the department making more than $100,000 in overtime, but last year there were 439 workers making six-figures in overtime, according to the Transparent California report.
One silver-living for the taxpayers who are footing the bill for all this is that overtime pay can no longer be factored into pension benefits. That was one of the reforms signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012. Overtime pay earned before that—like the millions of dollars in overtime earned by Thompson since at least the mid-1990s—do factor into pension calculations.
Even that small silver lining might be short-lived. Several fire departments in the state are challenging those pension reforms in a pair of cases that are heading to the California Supreme Court later this year.
"Unfortunately, public unions have weaponized the trust bestowed upon the firefighting profession as a means to enrich themselves," says Fellner, "at the expense of public safety and taxpayers alike."