The City of Bell has become the poster child for bad government. Exorbitant salaries, lavish pension benefits, a looming default on $35 million in city bonds, and illegal property taxes have all come to light recently. And as a result, taxpayers across California are focusing new scrutiny on their own local officials.
The biggest long-term threat to taxpayers and budgets is the pension crisis. Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was raking in a salary of nearly $800,000, and a total compensation package of more than $1.5 million that included benefits such as 28 weeks worth of vacation and sick time. That puts taxpayers on the hook for over $600,000 a year for Rizzo's pension—for the rest of his life—when he retires.
The Bell scandal is a microcosm of a new class struggle—in California and across the nation—between taxpayers and government employees. Government employees have become the new privileged class.
The argument of public workers has always been that they do not earn as much in salary as comparable private-sector workers, so governments must make up for this inequity through increased job security and greater pension benefits. If this was true a generation or two ago, it certainly is not today. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report on employee compensation revealed that, as of March 2010, state and local government workers earn, on average, nearly 44 percent more than do private-sector workers, including 34 percent higher salaries and wages and over 66 percent greater benefits.
California taxpayers are already paying pensions of over $100,000 a year to more than 12,000 former state and local government workers, including over 9,000 state and local employees covered by the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) and greater than 3,000 former school administrators or teachers covered under the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS).
At the federal level, a recent USA Today analysis, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data, found that government employees' average compensation has grown to more than double that of private-sector workers. Federal workers earned average pay and benefits of more than $123,000 in 2009, compared to a little over $61,000 in total compensation for private workers. Since 2000, federal worker compensation has increased 36.9 percent after adjusting for inflation while private-sector workers saw only an 8.8 percent increase.
The silver lining of the Bell fiasco is that it has awakened taxpayers to the magnitude of the public employee compensation problem (recent studies suggest the state has $500 billion in unfunded pension liabilities), and hopefully shamed some elected officials into implementing some real transparency reforms.
The excessive pay and benefits received by many government workers will not be solved, however, by merely increasing transparency of compensation data or tinkering around the edges of the pension system by offering slightly less generous benefits for new employees or requiring them to work a couple of more years before being eligible for retirement. The entire system needs to be overhauled. New employees should be switched to a 401(k)-style defined-contribution system, with pay and benefits comparable to those in the private sector. Only by seriously addressing excessive public employee pay and benefits can state and local governments in California ever rein in their enormous and unsustainable bureaucracies and return to any semblance of fiscal responsibility.
Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.