By Ed Ring, executive director, California Policy Center
Back in February 2014 the California Policy Center publicly announced the Transparent California website, developed in partnership with the Nevada Policy Research Institute. An article covering this announcement was posted on the Forbes Magazine website, entitled “Hundreds Of California Government Employees Are Paid Over $400,000 A Year,” which a review of 2013 Transparent California data (2014 data is still being assembled) easily confirms. As a matter of fact, in 2013, total compensation in excess of $400,000 was paid to 1,292 public servants in California. A staggering 2,818 of California’s public employees collected total compensation in excess of $300,000 in 2013.
Some have argued that it is misleading to claim people are making, for example, over $400,000 per year, when in fact the $400,000 being referenced is total compensation, not regular earnings. We reject this argument categorically. It is incumbent on anyone who assesses compensation to treat total compensation as the only valid measurement both for comparative purposes and, especially, when considering employer costs. Total compensation represents the actual cost to the employer, and it represents the actual value earned by the employee. Every penny of total compensation, whether it’s to fund future retirement benefits or to pay for current benefits such as health insurance, is something a worker will have to pay for themselves out of their regular earnings, unless it is instead paid for by the employer.
When talking about how much we pay our public servants, we contend that it is misleading to reference anything but total compensation.
The Forbes article published in Feb. 2014 also cited examples of excessive pay from Redwood City, which raises another issue, which is the reliability of the data gathered. As it turns out, and as the city acknowledged, the data provided to Transparent California by the city was not intentionally misleading, but easily misunderstood. This lead to the author of the Forbes article claiming that “nine employees made over $400,000 in total compensation with a total of 33, mostly police and fire department employees, making over $300,000 in total compensation in 2012.” The city’s response: “No Redwood City employee earned more than $400K. Furthermore, the correct number of employees earning more than $300K is 28, not 33 as stated in the op ed.” The city had put “exit incentive” payments into two data columns instead of just one and they got double counted by Transparent California’s researchers during the formatting process.
These are innocent mistakes. It’s worth noting that even the State Controller issues this disclaimer on all of their downloadable raw data spreadsheets showing public employee compensation – “the information presented is posted as submitted by the reporting entity. The State Controller’s Office is not responsible for the accuracy of this information.”
The real question, the real issue that isn’t going to go away, is how much should we be paying our public servants? How much can we afford to pay, and how much is fair both to these employees but also to taxpayers? So let’s take a look at 2013 data for Redwood City’s firefighters. We choose firefighters because the fire department in Redwood City, just as in nearly every other city in California, has the highest average pay and benefits of any major department.