Caltrans Union Spokesman Understates Engineers' Cost by $71M

In a hearing on Senator Moorlach’s SBX1-9 (Responsible Contacting for Caltrans) bill, Ted Toppin of the Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG) made a series of demonstrably false claims regarding the cost of Caltrans engineers.

Toppin claimed that the cost of a fully-loaded engineer – including all wages, benefits and even the cost of their office and service truck – was $116,000. A review of the department’s 2014 payroll data reveals that the average cost for a “transportation engineer” was $128,638. This is only for regular transportation engineers and excludes any engineer with a preface such as senior, supervising, principal, etc. Additionally, it understates their total cost as it does not include the cost of their trucks and office space.

In 2014, Caltrans had 5646 full-time regular transportation engineers on their payroll. Consequently, Toppin understates the cost of employing engineers by at least $71,000,000 per year for the department.

The highest compensated regular transportation engineer received $213,000, with principal transportation engineer, Kenneth Terpstra, leading all classifications of engineers with $243,000 in total compensation.

Later, Toppin is incredulous at the notion that a state engineer could make $138,000 a year, stating that, “There is no state engineer in this state, making $138,000 a year…I think it probably tops out for top engineers at around $110,000.”

Here it is clear Toppin is speaking about all categories of engineers, not merely the regular transportation engineers analyzed above. It is also likely he is referring to wages only, not total compensation. To be even more charitable, we will also assume he is referring to “regular pay” only, and in addition to excluding benefits, will also exclude any overtime earnings or supplemental wages classified as “other pay.”

Given the above, how does his claim contrast against the 2014 payroll data?

Six engineers received regular pay in excess of $138,000 last year and 1581, or nearly 20% of all engineers, received over $110,000. If we include total wages, those numbers rise to 69 and 2101, respectively.

Finally, Toppin expressed regret that the director of the department makes only $169,000 or so. He might be pleased to know that thanks to the incomparably generous leave policies offered by California’s public sector, the director was able to cash in roughly $80,000 worth of unused leave to boost his 2014 pay to $247,000, for a total compensation package of $302,000.

Mr. Toppin’s inaccurate testimony before the Senate committee fits a pattern best epitomized by the Legislative Analyst’s Office: “the overarching numbers given by Caltrans are not supported by data.”

Given the poor grasp on matters as straightforward as personnel costs, it is little wonder there exists deep skepticism about whether Caltrans is providing taxpayers with the best value possible for their tax dollars.

Robert Fellner is the Director of Transparency Research at the California Policy Center.

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