Ranks of top earners grow at County

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by Michele Clock | UT San Diego and Kevin Crowe | inewsource

A growing number of county employees made $100,000 or more last year even as the county cut its ranks and the economy stalled.

The county had 1,016 employees whose base pay crossed that threshold in 2009, up 28 percent from 2007, according to an analysis by inewsource, an independent investigative reporting center based at San Diego State University.

At the same time, the number of employees making less than $50,000 went down 15.5 percent.

In part, the trends are simply a reflection of employees moving from lower pay to higher pay, some of them passing that six-figure mark.

County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Pam Slater-Price said many of the employees making over $100,000 are well educated and highly skilled.

She called a $100,000 salary “pretty cheap” for an attorney, for example, and said the proportion of county workers making that salary is smaller than in some local governments. She also cited the influence of labor unions whose contracts drive the raises.

“We believe we really have top notch employees and we want to keep them there,” Slater-Price said. “We try to be competitive but there comes a limit… We can’t just keep increasing government.”

County officials and some union representatives said staff cuts have meant increasing workloads. Some days, employees say they don’t feel like they are paid enough.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local government workers in the San Diego region made more on average per hour than private industry workers in 2008, the most recent data available. Those government workers made $28.94 per hour compared to private worker average hourly pay of $21.68.

Compensation expert Paul Rowson of WorldatWork, a not-for-profit global human resources association, cautioned that the private sector averages don’t include forms of compensation such as employees’ company stock holdings.

He said many government agencies have decided to furlough and lay off workers but preserve pay for the remaining employees who are taking on more risk and responsibility. At the same time, he said, government agencies are willing to pay a premium to keep specialized workers.

Indeed, the county workers that grew the most, on a percentage basis, were those making $150,000 a year or more. In 2007, 71 workers made that much. In 2009, it was 199.

In response to economic issues, the county eliminated 774 positions in fiscal 2009-10 and 573 in the current fiscal year. Most were vacant. (The county was asked, starting Monday, to provide the total number of employees laid off from 2007 to 2009 and did not.)

Because vacant positions went unfilled, remaining workers had more to do. Among those remaining, many got pay raises during the 2007 to 2009 time frame.

According to the county, the employees whose pay grew over $100,000 include 91 attorneys, 32 sheriff’s lieutenants, 22 District Attorney’s investigators, 19 senior civil engineers, 11 senior information technology engineers and nine public works project managers.

Also on that list were nine psychiatrists, a job that the county has had a hard time filling because of competition with the private sector, unpredictable hours and the sheer difficulty of the work.

Human Resources Director Carlos Arauz said comparing county pay levels at the highest end of the spectrum to peers in the private sector, county workers are making far less.

But to some residents, public sector pay seems high — not low.

San Diego resident Gary Eisenbooth, a former local government worker-turned entrepreneur, said public service seemed to have evolved from offering modest paying jobs with decent pensions to well paid jobs with “almost bullet proof” security and “enormous” benefits.

He said he thinks unions have too much power and local governments seem insulated compared to the private sector, where he said says he has to “perform every day” to keep business coming in.

“In the public sector, you don’t have to do that,” he said. “You could wreck the city car, and what happens? They’ll give you a new one…It’s so detached from the real world.”


Graphic note:County spokesman Mike Workman said the wildfires of 2007 contributed to amounts of overtime paid that year.

Sheriff’s Lt. Hank Turner, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of San Diego County, said the pay may seem high for some law enforcement or other county positions, but so are the expectations and skill set required.

Turner said that fewer than 10 of 38 sheriff’s deputies who he started with nearly two decades ago are still with the department.

“Some don’t like it,” Turner said of the work. “They don’t like the shift work, don’t like the stress. I can see where someone can see the salary and say that’s a lot of money. I can tell you, I felt sometimes like it wasn’t enough.”

County employees such as those charged with enrolling food stamp recipients have seen their ranks shrink, even as their workload has increased, said Melinda Battenberg, spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 221, which represents nearly 10,000 county employees.

“We are seeing our workers are being stressed, and being asked to do more with less,” she said. “Services are not being provided at the level they would like. They care about the people they serve.”

San Diego Union-Tribune data specialist Danielle Cervantes contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune. KPBS aired a story using inewsource‘s findings, as did KGTV.

Methodology

inewsource obtained three years of San Diego County employee compensation records through a request under the California Public Records Act. inewsource filed the request January 20, 2010, received the last of the records June 3, 2010, and paid $980 for programming time on the part of San Diego County.

In its initial request, inewsource asked for five years’ of detailed payroll information for all San Diego County employees. The County Counselor’s office quoted a price of $9,800.40 for that information. In its response, the county stated it would require 120 hours of employee time to extract the information from the county’s payroll system.

The high price tag for the information triggered four months of negotiation after which the county and inewsource settled on a set of data that contained all compensation, regular, special and overtime, position, department, hire date and termination date for all employees for calendar years 2007, 2008 and 2009. The county provided the information in three Excel files, one for each year.

Employment figures include all employees who were paid by the county in a given year, regardless of whether they worked for the county for the whole year or one month. For example, the county employed a total 19,282 people in 2007. But, that does not mean all of them were employed the entire year. Indeed, more than 1,400 people stopped working for the county in 2007, some on January 1, and some on December 31.

Employee compensation was tracked year over year by using an employee’s full name and hire date.

inewsource’s analysis was e-mailed to the county on Sept. 17 so officials would have a chance to raise any objections. In an interview on Sept. 20, Human Resources Director Carlos Arauz said he did not go line-by-line, but, the data “looked like numbers were accurate from what we had provided.”

Regular Pay or Base Pay: includes an employee’s base pay, reimbursements for expenses such as mileage and tuition.

Overtime Pay: Includes only overtime pay for an employee.

Special Pay: Includes auto and uniform allowances, shift differentials and premium pay, which can refer to extra pay for work in hazardous conditions, training, increased responsibilities or extra pay for bilingual workers in certain jobs. You can view all of the types of premium pay for 2009 on San Diego County’s website, starting at ordinance 1.7.

Updated Nov. 8, 2010:

Overtime pay: San Diego County did not include Firefighter Probation or Standby pay.

Special Pay: San Diego County did not include Auto Allowance, Category C in the report.

Regular Pay: San Diego County did not include payouts for comp time, standby, FLSA comp time, or unused sick leave or vacation time.

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