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SD County Employees Pocketed Pay Increase Despite Position Cuts

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San Diego’s Watchdog Institute has published the county’s full payroll for 2007, 2008 and 2009. County payroll costs held steady over those years even as the number of people earning salaries above $100,000 grew.

— San Diego’s Watchdog Institute has published the county’s full payroll for 2007, 2008 and 2009. County payroll costs held steady over those years even as the number of people earning salaries above $100,000 grew.

Through 2007, San Diego County employed just over 19,000. Of those, nearly 800 earned annual salaries at or above $100,000.

By the end of 2009, when the economy was hitting rock bottom, the number of county staff had shrunk by about 3 percent. At the same time the number of people earning those higher salaries had grown by more than a quarter, to about 1,000 people.

What caused that increase? Part of it has to do with how county agencies managed to control payroll costs. The District Attorney’s office employed about 280 of these high wage earners in 2009 – more than any other department. The department’s chief administrator, Michelle Bush, said they are still cutting back in one of the only ways they can when it comes to compensation.

“One way that we have managed our salary and benefit is that we have over 120 positions vacant in our office, which is in excess of $10 million in positions.”

County agencies slowed or stopped hiring instead of laying people off. So now, the people who work there tend to have been there longer. And that means earning more money.

“The district attorneys are a professional classification. They are career classifications for most of the individuals, they do stay," Bush said. "They make the county a career. The longer they stay, they continue to advance along a natural progression for their professional classification, which includes increases.”

Pay for each class of worker is negotiated between the county’s human resources department and labor organizations. Those negotiations include regular pay increases that are laid out in formal agreements that span several years.

For example, 36 deputy district attorneys saw their salaries cross the $100,000 threshold in 2009 because of the pay increases spelled out in the agreement between the county and the attorneys’ association.

But the longevity of employees in county jobs tells Richard Rider that their salaries are just too high.

“There’s a simple way to tell if we’re over paying our government employees," said Richard Rider, president of San Diego Tax Fighters. "How many quit? Very few.”

Rider argued the pay increases should cause taxpayers some concern.

“I think it’s indicative of the fact that in the middle of a deep, prolonged recession they are continuing to raise pay," he said "This can’t be justified in a state that has the third highest employment rate in the country.”

Across the county employees earned an average salary of about $52,000. That’s $12,000 more than the median income of San Diego County residents the U.S. Census Bureau calculated a year earlier.

A report released earlier this year concluded the gap between state and local government pay and private sector pay was actually growing. The report pointed out that public employees tend to do jobs that require more education.

“The actual pattern of public sector earnings is that they’re much too low at the top of the distribution compared to the private sector," said John Heywood, an economic professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and one of the report's authors. "So the medical examiner, the district attorney, usually take a wage cut relative to what they could earn in the private sector as a doctor or a lawyer.”

Michelle Bush of the District Attorney’s Office said that’s true of their staff.

“Our DDA1's start out around $55,000 to $60,000 a year," she said. "We’re talking about an attorney coming out of law school making $60,000 a year as opposed to what they may make in the private sector, which may be two to three times that amount.”

San Diego County’s tax revenues will drop by $48 million this fiscal year. With even less money coming in, how many people to employ and how much to pay them will probably remain tough questions for county officials to answer.

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