San Luis Obispo's 50 highest-paid city employees

In analysis of city’s 50 highest earners, police and fire officials rank high, as do administrators

acornejo@thetribunenews.comNovember 6, 2010 

A list of the 50 top-paid city employees for the last two fiscal years in San Luis Obispo shows that about 85 percent are firefighters and police officers — many of them pushed there by overtime pay. The rest are top managers.

In 2009-10, the salary range of the 50 top-paid employees was $123,697 to $160,394. In 2008-09 the range was $123,366 to $191,911. All figures included overtime costs but excluded other compensation, such as contributions to health and pension plans.

The Tribune filed a public information request to obtain the data as part of its ongoing effort to review public employee compensation in San Luis Obispo County. The effort was undertaken in light of the excessive salaries paid to employees and council members in the city of Bell in Los Angeles County.

That controversy prompted State Controller John Chiang to require the salaries of all city and county elected officials and administrators be posted on the state’s website (names are not posted).

Some cities post salary information on their websites in San Luis Obispo County, but that excludes overtime costs.

The Tribune analysis found:

• The city spent more than $3 million in overtime paid to the top earners during the fiscal years reviewed.

• In 2008-09, 29 employees of the Fire Department accounted for 58 percent of the list. In 2009-10, fire personnel accounted for 42 percent, or 21 employees. Nearly all of those employees received more than $50,000 per person in overtime pay.

• Two employees, a firefighter and a fire engineer, earned more in overtime than their base salaries. The firefighter, starting at a base salary of $72,770, made $170,600 after overtime pay in 2008-09 — putting him second on the list, right below the city manager. The same year, a fire engineer made a total of $151,933 with a base salary of $72,770 and overtime earnings of $79,163, making him the 13th highest earner in the city that year.

Predominant on the lists are fire captains, battalion chiefs and fire engineers; also common are police lieutenants, sergeants and officers.

City officials say the breakdown is not surprising and that the overtime is a part of all city budgets.

“There is nothing particularly unusual of the overtime cost in San Luis Obispo,” City Manager Katie Lichtig said. “That said, we are always looking at the best ways to manage the city’s fiscal resources.”

The city of Monterey — with a population comparable to San Luis Obispo — operates much the same.

Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer said the city recently compiled a list of all employees making more than $100,000 a year, and the majority were public safety employees.

The overtime costs for those employees is inherent in the nature of their jobs, Meurer said.

The decision to hire additional staff or to pay overtime to existing employees to meet the needs of the community is “always a difficult balance,” he said.

Dwight Stenbakken, deputy executive director of the League of California Cities, said that because of the nature of public safety work it is a “fairly common occurrence” for them to be some of the top earners in the cities where they work.

“Many cities come to the conclusion that it is a more cost effective way to go by paying overtime on top of base salary versus bringing on a new employee with all of the associated costs that go with it, such as pension costs and worker’s compensation,” Stenbakken said. “Now is that a good way? Are some city’s overtime costs unnecessarily higher than others? Those questions are out there, too.”

Fire officials’ overtime

Many factors contribute to the overtime pay that placed many of the employees on the top 50 earners list in San Luis Obispo.

In 2008-09, 29 of the Fire Department’s 49 employees were on the list, including 13 fire captains, eight engineers and four firefighters.

In 2009-10, there were 21 of 53 fire employees on the list, including 11 captains, five engineers and two firefighters.

In the Fire Department, the two largest categories of overtime are from what is called “regular overtime” — employees filling shifts of others who are on vacation or are on sick or family leave — and from personnel responding to mutual aid calls to assist other agencies with fires or disasters.

A five-year analysis of overtime costs compiled by the city shows that it accounts for more than 10 percent of the Fire Department’s total operating costs. By comparison, the Police Department logs about half that, and all other city departments incur less than 2.5 percent of their total operating costs from overtime.

The city is contractually mandated to keep 14 firefighters on staff at all times for the city’s four fire stations.

Total regular overtime in 2008-09 and 2009-10 was about $1.8 million. In addition, the total cost of overtime associated with mutual aid calls during those years was about $1.4 million.

The city maintains that paying off-duty members overtime to fill vacancies is cheaper in the short term than hiring additional employees.

In 2008-09, facing a major budget crisis, the city left five fire jobs open during a citywide hiring freeze — pushing a higher number of fire employees to the list of top 50 earners because they worked overtime to fill the gap.

Lichtig said the city realizes a 9 percent savings by not hiring an additional firefighter because of the added cost of benefits for that employee.

Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, said the union lobbied city administrators to fill those positions rather than staff them with overtime.

“We approached city administration to urge them to maintain our staffing levels prior to the hiring freeze,” Baskin said. “We had similar concerns that too much overtime would have impacts on our members and the public alike.”

Unlike regular overtime costs, the city is fully reimbursed for the overtime associated with mutual aid calls by the state or the federal agency requesting the help.

In 2008-09, there were 32 state fires that local firefighters responded to — costing $767,688 in overtime. The city was reimbursed more than $2.2 million. In 2009-10 there were 10 state fires — costing $283,468 in overtime. The city was reimbursed $656,156. The city was reimbursed more than the cost of overtime because it also receives money for employee benefits, fire equipment used, travel and administrative costs associated with the mutual aid.

Police salaries

The number of police employees on the list jumped from 14 workers in 2008-09 to 21 in 2009-10.

However, overtime was not as large a factor for those employees as for fire workers.

Included in the 2009-10 year are three lieutenants, earning an average annual salary of $137,748. Two captains also had high rankings, earning an average annual salary of $152,908.

Binding arbitration, approved by city voters in 2000 for police and firefighters, was used to award sizable pay increases to members of the San Luis Obispo Police Officers’ Association in June 2008.

The salary range was bumped to $75,000 for beginning officers to $102,000 to master police officers with many years of experience.

In 2009-10, the top three earners were all members of the Police Department: Chief Deborah Linden, Capt. Ian Parkinson and a police officer.

The city manager would likely have topped that list but was not included because Lichtig was hired halfway through the fiscal year.

The police officer made $156,219 that year in salary and overtime, bringing him within about $1,000 of Parkinson, who holds the second highest post in the department.

The officer’s salary included a 5.3 percent educational incentive for achieving a bachelor’s degree or a certificate from the Peace Officer Standards and Training organization and nearly $50,000 in overtime.

The overtime cost of the police employees on the top 50 list in both fiscal years totaled $510,771.

Those costs are driven by various factors, such as when officers or sergeants work during their time off to testify in court.

The Police Department is a 24-hour operation, which means that patrol and dispatch shifts must always remain staffed.

Overtime costs are accrued when additional officers are needed for special events such as Halloween weekend.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

Editor's Note

The inflammatory salaries of city officials from Bell, near Los Angeles, have raised awareness of public employees’ pay nationwide at a time when local governments are under increasing financial strain, cutting services and jobs.

Today’s story looks at San Luis Obispo’s 50 top-paid employees for the last two fiscal years. It’s one in a continuing series that The Tribune is undertaking to show residents how much we pay our public work force — and why. In August, we reported the compensation of city managers and department heads countywide, for example. (See the interactive salary database here.)

The reason to look at wages is simple: It represents a city’s single biggest cost. Staffing costs in the city of San Luis Obispo, for example, make up 79 percent of this fiscal year’s General Fund budget, the city’s main operating fund.

As reporter AnnMarie Cornejo’s story shows, 85 percent of the 50 top-paid employees are public safety employees — fire and police — due to huge overtime costs.

We believe that information is important to know against the backdrop of contract negotiations, binding arbitration and budget cuts.

We obtained the information for this story by filing a public records request with the city. We did not name the individuals on the top 50 list because their pay is determined by the position they hold, not who they are. Such personal information might be disclosed in future stories as we deem it relevant.

— Executive Editor Sandra Duerr

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