Today’s look at top salaries paid to municipal employees in Morro Bay is the last in a series of Tribune special reports examining employee compensation in each of the seven cities in San Luis Obispo County, as well as in the county government itself.
At each agency, The Tribune filed a public records request for the 2009-10 salary records for the top 50 earners in that agency. The investigation was triggered in part by the outrageous salary scandal in Bell, which led to criminal charges against several top city officials.
We turned up no similar horror stories here — not that we expected to — but the analysis did point to the need for reform, particularly in the area of overtime pay. Here’s a look at some of the findings:
In sheer numbers, police and fire employees dominated lists of top-paid employees, largely because of overtime pay. In Atascadero, for example, public safety workers made up nearly three-fourths of the list of top 50; in San Luis Obispo, they accounted for 85 percent.
The city of San Luis Obispo reported the largest payouts in overtime to individual employees. Eight Fire Department employees earned more than $50,000 in overtime; three of the eight earned more than $60,000. That doesn’t mean the city was responsible for all those costs; it was reimbursed if firefighters were responding to mutual aid calls.
Due to overtime pay, higher rank was no guarantee of higher salary. For example, in a handful of cases, police officers earned more than sergeants, and sergeants earned more than lieutenants.
Public safety employees accounted for the bulk of overtime, but they weren’t the only ones receiving high payouts. In the city of Pismo Beach, for instance, the largest OT amounts to individual employees went to wastewater treatment plant employees.
Our take: We recognize that some overtime costs are inevitable; there will always be unexpected expenditures, especially in the realm of public safety. On top of that, many agencies have implemented hiring freezes to cut costs, and that often means existing staff must step up and take on additional duties.
We understand, too, that in some cases it’s more cost-effective to pay overtime to existing employees than to hire additional workers, in part because of the high cost of pensions and other benefits.
But, as we’ve said before, when pension and benefit costs have escalated to the point where a city can no longer afford to hire replacement employees, there’s something terribly wrong with the system. Rather than closing the door to new hires, it makes far more sense to scale back benefits by raising retirement age, for example, or requiring employees to pay a larger portion of their benefits.
That process has already started in some communities. San Luis Obispo County and the city of Morro Bay are among Central Coast agencies implementing so-called two-tier systems, which offer reduced benefits to new workers.
In the city of San Luis Obispo, passage of Measure A would aid pension reform by doing away with a cumbersome requirement in the city charter that forces the city to seek voter approval of any benefit reductions.
We believe such changes are critically important.
Paying excessive overtime to avoid the expense of bringing on additional workers is a lousy hiring practice. It puts too much strain on existing staff, while making it much tougher for the next generation to enter the workforce.
We urge every public agency to take a careful look at its OT bills and take whatever measures are necessary to reduce excessive payments.