A King’s Ransom for ‘Public Servants’?

By Jon Coupal
December 22, 2016

Editor’s note: During 2015 the average pay and benefits for a full time state worker in California was $104,867. County workers averaged $108,856, and city workers averaged $121,430. These averages do NOT include members of public safety. The 2015 average pay and benefits for full time state highway patrol and corrections employees was $136,828, for county sheriffs it was 165,630, and for city police officers it was $161,617. Firefighters averaged even more in 2015 – state fire service employees averaged $145,938 in pay and benefits, city firefighters averaged $196,370, and county firefighters averaged a whopping $198,959. These averages are not skewed by a handful of extremely well compensated executives, by the way. In most of these cases, the medians exceeded the averages. In the few cases where they did not, the difference was only one or two percent. How much is too much? How much can we afford? These averages are understated, by the way, because while employer (i.e., taxpayer) pension contributions in 2015 were nothing short of spectacular, they were not nearly enough to financially permit these pension funds to fulfill the promises they’ve made to these public servants when they retire. As Jon Coupal points out in his aptly titled article that follows, the median per capita income in California is just over $30,000 – several times less than California’s public servants.

Once upon a time we called them “public servants.” Today, most taxpayers struggle to keep a straight face when this term is used to describe the well-paid, elite who govern us.

In a state where the median per capita income is just over $30,000, Gov. Brown, legislators and other state elected officials will celebrate the holidays with a four percent pay raise. The California Citizens Compensation Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, decided the improved economy and healthy state budget justified the raise. California lawmakers, who were already the most generously paid in all 50 states, will now receive $104,115, earning them $14,774 more per year than the next highest. Of course, this does not count the additional $176 per day in “walking around money,” living expenses lawmakers receive for every day the Legislature is in session, amounting to an average of $34,000.

The governor, too, is now the highest paid at $190,100 — Pennsylvania’s governor is actually slated to make $723 more, but Gov. Tom Wolf does not accept the salary.

Do Californians pay their governor, the top executive of a state government responsible to nearly 40 million constituents, enough? The fact that there is never a shortage of candidates for this job is an indication that the pay is sufficient. So, the question arises, why do many government employees receive more than the governor?

At the local level, most cities have as their chief executive, a city manager. Of 479 cities – out a total of 482 – reporting to the state controller, 279 are paid more than the governor. Of these, 24 receive over $300,000 annually.

For some cities, paying their top administrator a high salary seems to be a matter of vanity. Councilmembers, who approve generous compensation, will take the position that their city deserves a highly-paid manager, the same way some car buyers justify the purchase of a luxury vehicle. Just as the neighbors may be impressed by the new Mercedes, neighboring cities will be impressed with their city’s ability to overpay the help. This, of course, puts pressure on surrounding cities to keep up with the Joneses.

While some city hall insiders will argue that higher pay is justified by a larger population, there seems to be no actual correlation.

Escondido, California’s most generous city, has been compensating its manager $413,000 annually to serve a population of 151,000. In slightly larger Palmdale, the manager receives $138,000 to look after 160,000 residents. And then there is Garden Grove with a population of 177,000 where the city manager gets $89,000.

A few years ago, the city manager in Bell went to prison for illegally compensating himself $800,000 per year. However, although it may not be illegal, the city of Vernon stands out as a candidate for the most profligate in the state. Its top executive is paid more than $328,000. The city’s population is only 210, which means that each resident is responsible for over $1,560 to compensate the manager. (The rumor that Vernon’s top executive insists on being called “Your Majesty” could not be verified.) Another small city, Gustine in Merced County, with a population of 5,482 gets the award for most frugal. It pays its city manager $909 annually.

While there are other areas of government employee compensation that beg examination, the range of pay for city managers seems to be the most irrational.

Still, none of these local administrators is close to the state’s top salary of $3.35 million. But since the program generates the revenue to pay UCLA football coach Jim Mora, he is more likely to be criticized for his record more than his salary.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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