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Public Employee Compensation

Recent Fox News commentary about compensation turmoil in Bell, California reached an almost manic crescendo, with pundits making hugely misleading generalizations about the compensation of all public employees. Frankly, it made me ill.  While no one can condone a Chief Administrative Officer of a city with 40,000 residents making $787,637 annually or an Assistant City Manager making $376,288, this is far from common. In fact, it is so outrageously uncommon it is outside the realm of reality. In the Associated Press report, it appears that, in addition to the enormous salaries of the CAO and his assistant, the Police Chief made $457,000 and part-time council members were making between $90,000 and $100,000 a year for part-time work. All three of the appointed officials have resigned and some elected officials may be next; the Council has called an emergency session for tonight in the face of continuing public outcry.

I have grave concerns about anyone so blatantly ripping off taxpayers, but I also have concerns about why there was no transparency and oversight. An even greater frustration is that various right-wing conservative groups are extrapolating this situation and making a case that all public salaries are too high. This is worrisome because most public employees do not make big bucks and, while there are some pensions that are totally unfair, most hard-working public employees will not make much in retirement. I know hundreds of city, county, state and federal employees and the vast majority are concerned about their ability to cobble together enough to make it through retirement years.

Reviewing recent job announcements, for cities the size of Bell, I see CAO and assistant jobs advertised from anywhere from $85,000 to around $125,000, with some over $150,000 depending on cost of living in that area. Curiously, Bell’s CAO started at $73,000 in 1993, which was within reason. How it got so far out of line is beyond me and, as the AP noted, it appears that city residents didn’t pay attention.

There are several messages here. First, there are always anomalies in the world of compensation and this, no matter how outrageous and wrong, should not be used as a hammer to punish other public administrators who are on call 24/7 365, and deal with some of the most complex issues in America. Second, the vast majority of public employees are not overpaid…not even close, and have less security than ever. Let’s not forget that there have been massive layoffs of city, county and state employees over the past two years. The remaining employees might (and might not) have more security in these dark economic times, but that is what is keeping many from bolting for more money elsewhere. Third, there is a sad and misleading overreach being perpetrated by various conservative groups and news sources, and, generally, their data does not match reality. How these folks can rage on for 30 to 60 minutes (especially the convened panels of ‘experts’) with far-ranging accusations borders on a witch hunt.

I believe in fair wages and reasonable pension plans. Government employees endure what their corporate counterparts typically do not – incessant public scrutiny, constant complaints, insufficient budgets, growing expectations and demand, being constantly on-call, and limited opportunities. It is about service…not profit. Yes, there are those who have profiteered in this case and I’m sure there are others (some union pensions come to mind), but generally, compensation is not out of line and should not be used as another vehicle to malign public employees.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Community Leaders and Public Administrators, will be available in fall 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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3 Responses

  1. Where were the watchdogs and the media? Situations like this should have been reported long before they reached these levels.

    BP is another example of the persons charged with oversight of companies working in and near our shores and licenced did not do their jobs. BP was wrong, wrong, and wrong. However we pay the salaries of thise charged with verifying that companies authorized to drill for oil off our shores are in compliance with the specified standards. Further where were those charged with watching the watchdogs, e.g., our own congress should have been aware of BP’s cost cutting problems in the recent past and made sure that regulations were followed.

  2. Excellent article. I absolutely appreciate this site. Thanks!

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