Public Scrutiny Focuses On Civic Salaries
Friday, August 6, 2010
It should be called the Bell effect - the rush to expose to public scrutiny city employee salaries and benefits. The Los Angeles Times uncovered that the small California city of Bell was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to city officials, that money came from property taxes from Bell's 40,000 residents, 17 percent of whom live in poverty. Bell has the second highest property tax bill in Los Angeles County.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): That’s interesting because you really almost segued into our next subject which is city salaries. So that’s – we’re sticking with money everybody, and this should be called the Bell effect, the rush to expose to public scrutiny city employee salaries and benefits. This happened after it was learned that the small California city of Bell was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to city officials although it only has 40,000 residents. 40,000 residents, I mean, that’s fewer people than would sit in Qualcomm Stadium. 17% of them live in poverty and yet Bell has the second highest property tax bills in Los Angeles County, bigger than glitzy Malibu or posh Beverly Hills. So, David, is the Bell story the tip of the iceberg of municipal corruption or an isolated instance?
DAVID KING (Founder/Editor, sandiegonewsroom.com): Well, I wouldn’t say it’s isolated. It’s not the only one of its kind. There’s other cities in southern LA County that are probably similar. But this is poster child material. And the activities and the actions of the public officials in Bell shouldn’t be imputed to every public official out there, certainly not every public official in San Diego County. You don’t have city managers making 900 grand and a police chief blatantly stealing from the public for 460 grand a year. That’s not what we have in San Diego County.
PENNER: No. San Diego County, is it your general feeling, David Rolland, that San Diego salaries as far as city managers are concerned, there are 18 different cities in San Diego County. And as far as the mayors are concerned, city council, that these are within acceptable norms.
DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Yeah. Yes, I think they’re generally reasonable salaries across the spectrum in San Diego County. And, you know, if they weren’t I think there are good enough journalists in this town that would have exposed it a long time ago.
PENNER: Well, KPBS now has on our website a list of every one of the 18 cities in San Diego County and how much is paid to the mayors, the council and the city manager. And so it would be interesting for people to go and take a look at that and evaluate for themselves where – whether there are any surprises in this information. And so I’d like to ask our callers, are you satisified with the amounts that we pay our public officials or, as Ricky Young said, is there increasing concern that we are paying just too much to city employees? I’d like to hear your opinion, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, this is your chance, Ricky. What do you think?
RICKY YOUNG (Watchdog Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, I mean, it’s not for me to judge how much people should be paid. It’s, you know, our role and you guys have done a good job of it this week, is get the information out there and let the voters decide. I think it’s important to have benchmarks and compare and see what somebody would make in a comparable job in the private sector. There’ve been some new reports out recently that show people in the public sector making, I think the number was 40% more than people in the private sector on average.
PENNER: Yeah, I heard the same thing.
YOUNG: You know, now it’s important to note that as the labor folks did to me, that’s not benchmarked for education and other things like that so, you know, so I guess the perception there is that the people that may be in the public sector are better educated and smarter or something and, therefore, are getting paid more? But I don’t know whether the public believes that or not.
PENNER: And I can remember when being a public employee, you said, well, I’m not going to take as much money but I’m going to have security. Remember those days?
YOUNG: Yeah, I think the idea historically was that the public sector jobs would pay a little less but the benefits would be better. And I think that there is sort of a perception out there that maybe it’s gotten out of whack and that the public sector jobs have both better pay and better benefits.
PENNER: Okay, gentlemen, I know you all want to come in on this one but let’s just hear from a couple of callers because they always have interesting opinions. And Allison in Tierrasanta is with us now. Allison, what do you have to say to the editors?
ALLISON (Caller, Tierrasanta): My comment is I don’t think that any elected public official should be making more than our president in any city, in any town, in any state anywhere. And I don’t think that our founding fathers intended for public service to be the lifelong, moneymaking scheme that it seems to be for many politicians.
PENNER: Does anyone remember the exact figure that the president earns? Do you know how much he…
YOUNG: The president makes $400,000.
YOUNG: And Mr. Rizzo in Bell was making $787,000.
ROLLAND: That’s interesting to note that the State Controller, right, Chiang, put – used $400,000 as a benchmark. He was going to do an internal audit of the state public employees retirement system and investigate any official that’s making over that figure.
PENNER: But here’s something interesting. In El Cajon and San Marcos—I’m coming back to San Diego—they pay the most to their city managers, according to our chart at more than $240,000 each, although they each have fewer than 100,000 residents. So larger cities seem to be paying less. What determines how high a city will go to get a city manager?
KING: If you’ve got a struggling city that’s got its population evaporating, you need a good city manager to keep the infrastructure. Being a city manager is a tough job, depending upon the city. Being the city manager of Del Mar may be a nice gig but being the city manager of El Cajon is not an easy job. Being the city manager of San Marcos is – with a city going through a transformation in its development, that’s a city manager that earns every penny.
PENNER: Okay. Let’s take another call. Let’s see, we just heard from Allison. How about Brian? Is Brian up? Brian from North Park. Go ahead, Brian.
BRIAN (Caller, North Park): I’m here.
BRIAN: My comment was just basically that public employees receive pension and retirement packages that are completely, you know, out of whack with present day, you know, public sector, you know, comparable positions. And I’ll take any comments off the air but that’s…
PENNER: Oh, there are lots of comments. You hit on an interesting subject that intrigues our panel. Let’s start with David Rolland.
ROLLAND: So, yeah, I hear that a lot. And what I don’t hear in response to that as part of the conversation very often and I would like to hear it more often, and that is let’s say – let’s just stipulate that that’s, for the sake of argument, that that’s true, that public and private sector retirement pensions are out of whack. What happens, though, if you decide the private sector, the current private sector retirement scheme is the appropriate way to go and you adjust your public sector retirement system downward in order to get it more into whack. What happens down the line? What happens 30, 40 years from now when nobody—nobody—has a retirement? I’m just worried that our country is not going to be able to afford to keep people going.
PENNER: Well, especially if you have a problem with the retirement plans themselves and the money that’s being invested in the retirement plans is disappearing as it is in some cases. Ricky.
YOUNG: So, David, your suggestion is that it’s better – it’s good to have the public employees have a secure pension so at least someone will. Is that what…
ROLLAND: Well, I didn’t make a suggestion, I only said that there is a colossal train wreck coming. So I guess – is it better to have some people that will be able to support themselves when they’re retired than nobody? Yeah, I suppose I guess I would say that.
PENNER: Well, that’s – that’s certainly a subject for another Editors Roundtable but we’re hitting the end of ours. And just before we end, I just want to ask you about this, David Young (sic), the voiceofsandiego reports that there’s a proposal to the county that would make its investment officer a county employee earning as much as $886,000. Do you think with all this scrutiny that’s going to fly?
KING: Absolutely not. They’ve got a political tin ear if they think that’s going to fly today and that’s – there’s not going to be a backlash against doing that. One quick point, the City of Bell adopted a city charter a few years back and only 334 people voted for it, and 52 people voted against it. That’s less than 1% of the population. You get what’s coming to you.
PENNER: And what’s coming to us is the end of the show. I’m sorry, Ricky, I know you wanted to say something. Thanks to Ricky Young, David Rolland and David King, and to our listeners and callers. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.