Local Government Workers Earn More than the President—and Other Fun Facts

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

You have to respect a government website whose official disclaimer notes: “The State Controller's Office is not responsible for the accuracy of this information”—especially when it’s a website devoted to the much-discussed compensation of local and state government employees.

California Controller John Chiang has a nifty site that draws from a database of information submitted by cities, counties, the state, community college districts, California State University and special districts. Thus, the disclaimer. The database is admittedly a work in progress, but users can access a number of menus to conjure up charts and graphs of all manner of inquiries.

The user can compare wages and health and retirement costs (average and total) between any of the government entities, sort the data by highest paid within population limits, compare wages over time (not a lot of time; only back to 2009) and more. Or, optionally, the data can be downloaded as a comma-delimited file and crunched on one’s own computer.  

NBC Bay Area used it last week to draft lists of the top city and county wage earners in 2012, with a special focus on those who had higher wages than President Barack Obama. “They’re some of the highest paid Californians, but they don’t work for tech giants like Apple or Google, they work for you, and they’re paid with your tax dollars,” the report begins.

There were 104 of them last year, earning more than $400,000, up from 68 the year before. An orthopedic surgeon at Kern County Medical Center topped the list at $1,040, 651. All but one of the Top 25 were county employees; the Buena Park city manager earned $545,394. None of the employees are identified by name in the database, presumably as a nod to privacy, although obviously, title can give away the game.

The website does not appear, to the uninitiated, to include access to data on overtime and bonuses, but that information is available as a download. NBC crunched those numbers for just the Bay Area, and anecdotally reported that lots of employees received more in overtime and bonuses than wages.    

To hammer home the point, California Common Cause Executive Director Kathay Feng is quoted, warning that, “When overtime starts to exceed [an employee’s] base pay, you have to ask whether or not the city is making good judgments.”

Autumn Carter at the think tank California Common Sense asked and answered the question. “What it says to me is that these compensation levels are rising, and they’re rising unchecked. Citizens are not calling foul,” she said.

That might not be entirely true. NBC called foul. Lists of top government wage earners, like lists of top government retiree pensions, are among the most popular ways government critics measure how it has run amuck. Too much money is spent on too many agencies and too many employees, they argue. Often, at the root of the problem, are greedy unions and they’re overly generous pensions and health care.

Lists like NBC’s and ones easily crafted at the Controller’s website are often delivered in a context-free environment that aids the cause. For instance, the list of 25 top city and county wage earners included 21 doctors. Some might construe that to be more of an issue about the health care industry than bureaucratic waste.

Others might find it more relevant that total wages, according to the Controller, dropped or were flat for all six state entities from 2009-2012, and that doesn’t include the erosion of buying power from inflation.

Top-Whatever lists of earnings that don’t include average earnings and compare them across time within a context of the economy, privatization and politics can be simplistically misleading. It’s impressive that the Controller pulled together salary and compensation information for “public entities, including 58 counties, more than 450 cities, more than 2,900 special districts, more than 90 higher education providers, and most state employees for a total of more than 1.5 million positions.”

Government transparency is a good thing and there is not nearly enough of it. But Top Ten lists of what’s trending now might provide more heat than light.

Where is the public database of information that allows Californians to get a true picture of how government raises and spends their money? How much is spent on infrastructure? How much is spent on social services, education and debt service? Where is the website that answers the big questions, but lets you drill down into the Department of Public Health to see where they spend their money?

Some would settle, for openers, for a map of government agencies, departments, bureaus and offices that have been variously estimated to number between 300 and 500. No one is quite sure. The list runs more than a page long.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Which California City and County Workers Earn More than the President? (by Vicky Nguyen, Mark Villarreal and Kevin Nious, NBC Bay Area)

Government Compensation in California (California State Controller’s Office)

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