CITY HALL — The 20 highest paid employees at City Hall each earned more than $200,000 last year, including a sergeant in the Santa Monica Police Department who took home roughly $8,000 more than his boss, the chief of police, a review by the Daily Press of 2009 wage and tax statements revealed.
The majority of those on the top 20 list include city attorneys (eight), fire captains (five) and members of the SMPD (five), typical for a city that has its own police and fire departments, city officials said.
The review of W-2 forms provided by City Hall’s Human Resources Department was conducted following the salary and pension scandal in the city of Bell, where the city manager, assistant city manager and police chief were found to be making salaries totaling $1.6 million a year. Council members in that working class city in eastern Los Angeles County were raking in $96,000 a year, whereas members of the Santa Monica City Council take home just $12,744 (the mayor makes $15,329).
Figures from the W-2 forms reviewed by the Daily Press included salary, bonuses, overtime and specialty pay.
“In terms of overall salaries, you will see that yes, Santa Monica compensates its employees well,” said City Manager Rod Gould, whose predecessor, Lamont Ewell, was the highest paid city employee in 2009 with a total gross of $315,444.41. “Santa Monica is very competitive… because it asks a lot of its employees and seeks to retain and attract the best.
“But unlike Bell, Santa Monica has the economy to be able to support those salaries and makes all decisions in the open and very publicly.”
Salary information, including Gould’s $285,000 contract and agreements with unions representing city employees, is available on City Hall’s website, www.smgov.net.
“I think we are pretty open and transparent,” Gould said. “We live in a very sophisticated city with very active media who keep close eye on what the council does. These types of scandals like we see in Bell … wouldn’t be tolerated in our town and wouldn’t get started and wouldn’t last very long if they did.”
Gould said he was not surprised by who made it on the top 20 list, saying it mirrored salary breakdowns in other cities that provide their own public safety. He said the presence of so many attorneys is representative of the City Council’s progressive stance on many issues as well as an active City Attorney’s Office that prosecutes misdemeanors, engages in consumer protection and develops local laws that push the envelope, including bans on smoking, creating a living wage ordinance for those employed by private companies doing business with City Hall, fighting the FAA over runway safety and the banking industry over ATM fees.
The reason so many fire captains and two police officers were on the list was because of overtime pay, city officials said. Those employees were either assigned to a special detail or were filling a need because of a lack of personnel. Department heads will choose to assign overtime instead of hiring a new employee because it saves money over the long haul. New employees must go through an interview and selection process, be trained and command benefits and pension payments. Overtime does not count towards an employee’s pension contribution, city officials said.
“While some fire fighters appear to be making so much more than anyone else, they are putting in the additional hours on duty to earn that pay,” said Santa Monica Fire Chief Scott Ferguson, whose predecessor, Jim Hone, earned $229,199 in 2009, which is less than what three fire captains in charge of suppression made that year.
“But it is hard for those who are not familiar with how overtime works to understand that in the end this saves the city money,” Ferguson added.
Gould said both Ferguson and Police Chief Tim Jackman are closely monitoring the amount of overtime handed out and he is confident they are doing their best to contain costs at a time when City Hall is facing future budget deficits and has asked residents to approve a half-cent sales tax increase.
As the economy continues to struggle and those working in the private sector are faced with cutting costs and shrinking 401Ks, the criticism of public employee salaries and pensions has increased, and so has the pressure on elected officials to enact reform.
Marcia Fritz is one of those critics. She is the president of the taxpayer group California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which is calling for pension reform. If unions do not give concessions soon, she is predicting a brutal battle in the year ahead.
According to records provided by CalPERS, which provides retirement and health benefits to more than 1.6 million public employees in the state, more than 26 former employees receive over $10,000 a month from their pensions. Gary Gallinot, a SMPD veteran and former chief of Santa Monica College’s police department, pulls in the highest pension with $15,022 a month, followed by former Fire Chief Ettore Berardinelli ($14,366) and former Deputy City Attorney Linda Moxon ($13,789).
Fritz said pensions are the main focus, but salaries do play a role in the debate and are not immune to criticism.
“Unions have to know that public opinion polls support reform,” she said. “If they don’t take action and address this, it’s not going to get pretty.”
Ferguson admitted pension and benefits for public employees is a sensitive issue that can spark heated debate. All he can say is that his fire fighters and other city employees are working hard to serve the community.
SMPD Sgt. Jay Trisler, head of the union representing police officers, said the Daily Press review of salaries showed that for the most part the highest paid are those in management, which is how the pay structure should be. As far as the officers on the list, he said they choose to work overtime while other officers prefer to spend more time with their family. There are rules in place to make sure one officer doesn’t work so much that they burn out. For the most part, using overtime saves money.
“I haven’t heard the community talk about our salaries,” he said. “I think they are happy with the service the police department provides … and we’re grateful to be able to work in a community like Santa Monica.”