About twenty minutes into the late night meeting, Councilmember Sue Himmelrich finally made a statement everyone could agree on.
“I feel as if every time I come into this room, everyone is so angry,” she said.
The crowd of about thirty activists and members of the North of Montana Neighborhood Association mumbled and nodded in approval. The laundry list of complaints during the Thursday night meeting ran the gamut: perceived over-development of the City, tourists, staff incompetence and government waste. Himmelrich kept trying to bring the room back to the topic at hand: city salaries.
“We can’t go back. This is our situation today,” said the councilwoman. “We cannot do wholesale firing of entire departments and we can’t roll back pensions.”
The size of Santa Monica’s city staff and their pay, cushioned with generous retirement packages, medical care and lengthy vacations days have roused more than just envy from the room of mostly retirees. There is genuine anger among concern. The City’s various pension plans have a combined unfunded long-term liability of about $387 million.
“We do everything we can to lower our pension costs,” the City’s director of finance Gigi Decavalles-Hughes said in the crowded community room of the Montana Street library branch. Overall, 75% of the City’s total $1.5 billion pension liability is funded. The City has increased the amount employees pay toward pensions. New employees receive less generous pension packages.
The pension problem is not unique to Santa Monica and cities across California are grappling with how to fulfill generous plans as former employees live longer into retirement. However, the City’s lengthy payroll of about 2,100 full time employees magnifies the issue here. Santa Monica is a relatively small city with about 92,000 residents. However, the size of the City swells every day with workers and tourists to about 250,000. The travel bureau estimates 8 million tourists come to Santa Monica every year.
“If you look at how Santa Monica is trending and how we are continuing to grow our (number of) employees, there seems to be a check and balance missing,” said longtime resident Robert Gomez.
Despite the fact Santa Monica’s budget remains in the black, staff costs have become a hot button issue and led to the launch of an audit subcommittee, of which Himmelrich herself is a member.
“I was the first person who publicized that of the 50 highest paid city attorneys in the state, 13 of our attorneys were among (them),” Himmelrich said.
An attorney herself and first term councilmember, Himmelrich had perhaps hoped to gain some traction with this crowd of city watchdogs. She’s spoken at length at meetings like this, faced public questioning, championed the audit and publicly argued with the City Manager over new hires and consulting contracts at City Council meetings. When a new contract appears before the Council, she is routinely the lone Councilmember to shoot it down.
Still, she admits there is little that can be done to reduce the size of staff or how much employees make.
“You can’t fire a third of the staff,” Himmelrich said. “You can do some sort of rational cutback.”
“I think people in the city work hard and they deserve a fair and good wage like we all want,” resident Jeff Gordon said, who wondered why technology hasn’t eliminated the need for some City positions like it has in other industries. “Why people are angry and why people are really concerned is that we don’t have a situation that seems fair.”
Even first responders did not escape the criticism of the crowd, since they receive some of the heftiest paychecks. Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks was the highest paid employee in 2015, receiving $306,075 in annual salary according to Transparent California. An additional $168,724 in compensation (most of it in the form of her pension) put her total compensation just under half a million dollars. A police Sergeant who more than doubled his regular salary with overtime came in second, bringing home $366,262 in pay – plus another $109,000 in other benefits.
To compare, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Back made $344,400 in 2015, although the City does not post his retirement package and other benefits.
Seabrooks defends the overtime as a cost saving measure. Paying time-and-a-half is still cheaper than hiring a new recruit and providing a pension. She said officers often work long hours to protect popular events like the Twilight Concert Series while maintaining coverage for the rest of the city.
“At the end of the day, the costs that the officers are paid is overtime,” Seabrooks said. “It has to be. We’re not going to hire more officers just for the pier concerts.”
The crowd did not seem to run out of steam during the two-hour panel, but they eventually ran out of time. Former City Councilmember and two-time mayor Bob Holbrook happened to be the last person in the crowd to get in a comment. The last speaker was the first to cut Himmelrich any slack.
“She isn’t to blame for it,” Holbrook said, who was on the Council when they first elected to pay a City Manager over $300,000 in an effort to attract top talent.
“We are. We tried to set up the City to be successful.”