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Fire chief had highest paycheck in 2009

Sick pay, vacation time payouts added up for Fire Department's Duane Olson, now retired.

July 20, 2011|By Mona Shadia, mona.shadia@latimes.com
  • Duane Olson
Duane Olson

Thanks to the payouts for sick pay and vacation time he received upon retirement, Huntington Beach's former fire chief earned the highest paycheck among municipal fire chiefs statewide in 2009 — the most recent year for which there is data — state controller's office records show.

Duane Olson's compensation that year, $363,608, eclipsed the total compensation for fire chiefs in Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego — the three largest cities in California.

However, because Olson received his large payment in the year of his retirement, it is difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons with California's still-working fire chiefs.

Olson's base salary during his last year of work, $191,349, is largely in line with his peers in California's larger cities. That number was nearly doubled by more than $70,000 in accrued sick time and more than $56,000 in accrued general leave, among other payouts.

At least in 2009, Olson did take in more than all others in the same line of work. Riverside's fire chief, for example, earned $360,411, the second-highest rate in California. Anaheim's fire chief made $230,410, while Santa Ana's chief made $270,428. Each city is larger than Huntington Beach.

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Olson's pay in 2009 did not increase his pension, but he already receives the maximum benefits based on his years of service.

Olson, 62, receives a monthly pension of $16,001, an amount that will increase for the rest of his life based on the cost of living, according to information obtained from the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS).

Reached by phone, Olson defended his benefits package, saying it was something he negotiated over more than 35 years of work for the city of Huntington Beach.

When asked if taxpayers should pay public employees' accumulated hours like sick pay, he said this is the case even in some private companies.

"CEOs get stock options, access to private cars, incentive pay," he said. "They get their base salaries plus bonuses, which you never see, add up to a substantial amount of money. There's no way you can check into it."

Though such examples are true in the higher echelons of corporate America, many private-sector employers have adopted use-it-or-lose policies in relation to sick and vacation pay.

However, Olson said his job required him to work long hours and forego vacations.

Olson acknowledged that times have changed since his era and believes that public employees should take on more of the costs of their retirements.

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