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Napa’s 10 highest-paid city and county public safety officials took home a combined $3 million in 2018, new records show.

In the public safety realm, higher-ranking law enforcement officers and fire personnel comprised a majority of the top-paid city and county personnel.

Attorneys and employees of the Corrections and Probation Departments were generally not paid as highly as fire and law enforcement workers, the data shows.

Napa fire and police officials say that’s partly because first responders are so highly trained and have such draining, difficult jobs. Firefighters and police officers are more likely to die by their own hand than in the line of duty, according to a study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2017.

Police are regularly exposed to scenes of domestic violence, child abuse or fatalities, said Napa Police Chief Robert Plummer. When an officer leaves home in the morning or kisses their family goodnight before heading to work, the officer faces a greater chance of not coming home than other professionals, he said.

“No one signs up to be killed,” Plummer said.

Much of the reason that some of the best-paid fire officials earned so much overtime is because they traveled to fight fires such as the Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise, Napa Fire Chief Brassfield said. Seeing such extreme devastation can cause mental trauma.

“We know we’re paid a lot of money, but we risk our lives daily to protect and serve our community,” Brassfield said. “We love our jobs and we’re happy to do it.”

Sheriff earned the most

The 2018 salary data was recently made public by Transparent California, a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute that requests and publishes payroll records for all public employees in California.

View the graph below to see how much 10 public safety professionals earned last year:

Here’s what Napa County’s 10 top-paid public safety officials earned in 2018” https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net

Napa County Sheriff John Robertson was not only the highest-paid public safety employee in Napa County, but the best-paid public servant in the county, overall. He received $407,000 in pay and benefits in 2018.

Brassfield was the second-highest earner in public safety with $336,000 in pay and benefits, and Napa Police Sgt. Ryan Cole took third place with $321,000. Napa County District Attorney Allison Haley and Public Defender Ron Abernathy weren’t far behind in fourth and fifth places, respectively, and earnings also totaling approximately $321,000.

What the data doesn’t show

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While the database shows Californians how much their public servants take home in regular pay, overtime, benefits and an ambiguous “other pay” category, it has some limitations. “Other pay,” for example, can mean anything from car allowances to bonuses.

Though some state agencies contract with counties to provide services — as is the case with state fire agency Cal Fire and Napa County Fire — the salary data can’t be broken down by county, so it’s unclear how employees on the state’s payroll fit into the picture.

The data shows only how much employees were paid, not how much they have the capacity to earn. Napa Police Chief Robert Plummer, who joined the department in July 2018, didn’t show up in the top 10 earners, though the city sets his salary slightly above that of Fire Chief Steven Brassfield, the second-highest public safety earner in 2018.

Though payroll data may show a lot of overtime for city police and fire personnel, not all of that comes directly from the city’s bank account, city officials say.

Police get reimbursed by third parties for security services offered at events, though the city does have to pay overtime if officers have to go to court on their day off or have to stay late because of an arrest or call for service, Plummer said.

Most of the overtime clocked by firefighters is paid by the state, Brassfield said. California reimburses city fire departments for the cost of sending firefighters to out-of-county incidents and keeping local fire stations fully staffed in the meantime.

Hard jobs, cost of living affect first responder pay

Police and fire officials say cost of living is an important factor in setting salaries for their employees. Police officers must live within 60 minutes of Napa, while fire employees must live within 90 minutes of their station.

“They can’t just live anywhere,” said Brassfield, who added that the low unemployment rate narrows the pool of candidates.

Plummer came to Napa from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, where the cost of living is lower. He estimated that starting salaries for officers in Las Vegas are at least $20,000 lower than those of starting Napa officers.

Brassfield and Plummer say their employees do risky and demanding jobs that can leave emotional scars.

When firefighters leave to fight an out-of-county wildfire, for example, they prepare to spend 14 days fighting the fire, Brassfield said. They usually spent a day or two working before taking a day off.

Those long hours and extreme conditions can take a toll on firefighters, he said.

Mental health among first responders is such a serious concern that the Napa Police Department is working to develop a mental wellness app that officers can use to anonymously access counseling or other resources if they’re experiencing stress related to the tragedy that officers regularly see, Plummer said.

“There’s no amount of money that can pay to cover that,” he said. Officers’ salaries are “a small price to pay for what they endure.”

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Public Safety Reporter

Courtney Teague is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She can be reached at 707-256-2221. You can follow her reporting on Twitter and Facebook, or send her anonymous tip at: tinyurl.com/anonymous-tipbox-courtney.