Does the Bell Toll for Excessive Public Pay?

Increasingly, the public may be seeing that the problem isn't a handful of officials who illegally gamed the system, but a system that allows a powerful minority to legally game the majority.


"The art of government is to make two-thirds of the nation pay all it possibly can pay for the benefit of the other third," mused Voltaire. Even that cynical French Enlightenment writer couldn't imagine what would transpire one day in California, where a portion of the mere 15.3 percent of the public that works for government has gotten the rest of the public to pay for an eye-popping level of compensation.

The latest data '" revealed in a December update to the controller's "Government Compensation in California" Web site '" provides fodder for outrage. There's a fire battalion chief in a small Bay Area suburb receiving a one-year total compensation package that costs $494,000 and city managers in modest-sized burbs (Temecula, Menifee, Carlsbad, Buena Park, Fountain Valley) receiving pay-and-benefit packages of nearly a half-million bucks and more in 2012.

We see a list of employees in fiscally troubled cities '" Stockton, San Bernardino, Vallejo '" with total earnings in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. The data shows public "servants" taking $230,000-plus cash-outs of leave, CEO-level salaries for employees in impoverished backwaters, and many employees receiving six-figure benefits in addition to their wages. Average pay levels for California public employees often soar above average earnings in their respective communities.

Coincidentally, the controller's update was released just as Angela Spaccia, former administrator in the scandal-plagued Los Angeles County city of Bell, was found guilty on 11 corruption charges that included the misappropriation of public funds. She was accused of creating a secret pension fund for herself and then-city manager Robert Rizzo, who at one point "earned" a salary of $800,000 a year plus benefits.

Rizzo '" the rotund racehorse-owning poster child for municipal greed '" previously pled "no contest" to corruption charges. Five other Bell officials were convicted, also. The scandal, which erupted in 2010, sparked a widespread debate about public pay levels and oversight. Trial evidence included an email string where officials joked about getting "fat together" and "taking all of Bell's money."

In fact, Controller John Chiang created this statewide compensation Website, based on data provided by cities and agencies, in direct response to Bell. The database has been widely praised as thorough and easy to navigate. But as scary as the information it provides may be, it may even understate the problem.

Its municipality pay averages "are in orders of magnitude too low," argued Steve Frates, director of research at Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute. That's because it includes part-time and occasional workers in the average. Furthermore, the database doesn't include other benefits public employees receive. It only calculates the direct costs of pensions and medical-care benefits '" not the tens of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

Chiang says that public disclosure of compensation information is the first step toward reform. Critics complain, however, about a lack of follow-up steps from other state officials. "The illegality, the excesses of Bell, are an aberration of the real problem," said Richard Rider, president of San Diego Tax Fighters. "The most powerful force in local politics are the public-sector unions. They elect people who are most compliant. The result is what you would expect."

The public has seen only modest reform. Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders were concerned last year that their tax-increasing ballot measure (Proposition 30) was in trouble because the public didn't trust that they would spend new dollars wisely. So they cobbled together a tepid pension-reform measure that mostly pares back excesses for new employees. That was it from the state.

Some localities, including San Diego and San Jose, passed pension reform measures last year. Bankruptcy forced Stockton to pull its far-above-average compensation levels down to the state average. But nothing fundamental has changed in California.

Now that the Legislative Analyst's Office is predicting years of budget surpluses (provided the economy recovers and legislators control their spending), any hope of compensation reform from the Capitol is dim. Reform efforts have thrived only when it seemed as if the state was running out of cash.

On the hopeful front, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, is championing a 2014 statewide initiative that would allow cities to cut future benefits for current employees. Union activists are portraying that as an attempt to "eliminate" pensions, which clearly isn't the case. But that measure could spark the next public-employee compensation battle. Reed recently argued that union-driven overpayment for police leads to higher crime because cities don't have money left to hire additional officers.

Supporters of Reed's effort are bolstered by a new Field Poll that reveals plummeting public support for labor unions, as a plurality (45 percent) of Californians say they do more harm than good. And despite the "no reform" approach in Sacramento, more troubling numbers trickle out '" even from unlikely sources.

Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a union ally, told a small group in Thousand Oaks this month that the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) is in "crisis mode" and that "there will be a ratcheting down of retirement promises and commitments." He did, however, defend the condition of the larger California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS).

Sound or not, the list of those who receive pensions of $100,000 or more from CalPERS now tops 12,000 and is growing by about 40 percent each year. There's plenty of accessible information, from the controller and elsewhere, suggesting that the public-employee compensation system is unsustainable and unfair. Union Watch reports that in struggling Desert Hot Springs the average city worker actually receives an all-included package of $144,000 a year and the average police and fire employee receives $164,000.

Increasingly, the public may be seeing that the problem isn't a handful of officials who illegally gamed the system, but a system that '" as Voltaire understood '" allows a powerful minority to legally game the majority.