Public salaries outpace residents’ income levels
on November 20, 2011
Richmond public employees earn a yearly average salary almost twice the median household income of the city’s residents, leading to a drain of wealth and resources as many of those employees choose to live outside of the city.
Full-time city workers collected a median salary of $90,000 last year, with 337 of the city’s full-time employees surpassing the six-figure mark, according to figures provided by the City Clerk’s office. The median household income in Richmond is $55,000.
The highest paid individual was a police sergeant who earned $326,000, with $211,000 derived from overtime and “other” pay. “Other” pay can include things like incentive pay for being bilingual, uniform allowances, or extra compensation for graveyard shifts.
“That number jumps off the page as concerning,” Police Captain Mark Gagan said.
Concerning, perhaps, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
That same 21-year veteran led the Bay Area the year before when he received $193,000 in overtime – almost double his base pay. Three policemen and one firefighter made over $100,000 in overtime alone last year, while sworn police officers draw an average gross salary of $151,000.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, only 10 out of 187 officers live in Richmond, meaning their taxpayer-funded paychecks aren’t recycled in the community. Police and fire workers often choose to live outside of the cities they patrol because doing so can lead to safety concerns, conflicts of interest, or other tensions.
Figures for exactly how many other public employees live outside city lines were not readily available. But experts say that the number of city employees who choose not to live in Richmond is no surprise.
“If other residents earned that kind of money they would move, too,” said Jan de Vries, a professor of history and economics at Berkeley. “It’s a question of choice. Who has choice and who doesn’t?”
Of the 10 highest paid employees only two – City Manager Bill Lindsay, who was third on the list with a salary of $271,000, and his assistant in the eighth spot making $229,000 – do not work for the police or fire departments. In the top 50, the number of non-police-or-fire employees is five.
It’s common in low-income communities for public laborers to make significantly more than the tax base for which they serve. And even if the city did fill those positions with locals, de Vries argues, that wouldn’t solve the problem.
“If Richmond residents started earning higher salaries, they wouldn’t be Richmond residents for very long,” he said.
Several department pay scales are strongly steered by union negotiations, with the exception of executive management, which the City Council arbitrates. When a new position is established Lindsay surveys surrounding cities with similar characteristics to determine a suitable salary.
But across Contra Costa County, public workers, excluding county-funded health and education employees, make an average of $58,000, almost 40 percent less than their Richmond neighbors. In Concord, a city that population-wise is 20 percent larger than Richmond, 154 employees made more than $100,000 – less than half of the number in Richmond. In Antioch, with a population almost exactly the same as Richmond’s, 113 employees made six figures, one-third the number in Richmond.
“It’s been that way for a long time,” Lindsay said.
That’s largely because of union bartering, says Richard Walker, a professor of economics and geography at UC Berkeley and expert in Bay Area history. Unions don’t have the same sway in the private sector, Walker said, skewing the income curve in working-class towns.
“Richmond has a long history of unionization,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest reason [salaries] are high even in a low-income city.”
Union representatives, particularly in public safety, argue that they are compensated fairly for the often-dangerous work they perform. Comparing public employees to private sector employees, some say, isn’t fair because of the economic collapse – public salaries, they argue, have stayed at a reasonable level because of contracts while private salaries have dropped.
Another factor leading to robust remuneration, though, is the philosophy that to recruit and retain quality staff in a high-crime, low-income area such as Richmond the city must lure them with extra decimal places– particularly so in the police department.
Since Lindsay began working for Richmond six years ago, the police force has expanded by about 33 percent, he said. To attract a high caliber of applicants as well as lateral transfers, officials decided to up the ante.
“We made a conscious decision to increase salaries to get more people interested,” Lindsay said.
Despite the police department increasing its staff, time-and-a-half overtime wages remain significant costs – accounting for 16 percent of overall pay. The department paid $5.6 million in overtime for fiscal year 08-09 and again in 09-10, and $4.7 million last year — which is $500,000 more than the city budgeted.
“I don’t think there’s been any real substantial reduction in overtime,” Lindsay said. “We think it should go lower.”
The fire department spent $2.6 million in overtime last year – doling out as much as $113,000 in overtime to one captain – but it was less elective because of understaffing. The city froze eight positions from being filled and several people have retired, Fire Chief Michael Banks said, leaving a void in the department.
“Our staffing levels are at a point now where any absence is going to require overtime,” Banks said. “We’re at the point where people are starting to get worn down.”
After the first of the year, Banks said, he has approval from the city to start filling vacancies. He said he expected hiring to help reduce the department’s overtime in the next few years.
Neither Gagan nor Lindsay gave a specific target but agreed that police overtime needs to be reduced. And although it might be possible to trim the overtime budget, a certain amount of overtime pay is unavoidable considering the nature of the work. Officers often have to go to court on their days off and when they do so – even if it’s for less than an hour – per union contracts they must be paid for a minimum of four hours. The department estimates that it receives more than 100 subpoenas a month.
When a new officer is hired, Gagan said, it takes about two years and $200,000 to get that person fully contributing – meaning new-hires may not have started to put a dent in the workload.
Officers can also earn overtime by signing up to appear at community gatherings such as block parties, neighborhood safety meetings and football games.
At Richmond High School’s final football game against cross-town rival De Anza last week – a game attended by roughly 100 fans, mostly families – 10 patrol cars could be spotted around campus before and after. Six officers had been assigned to cover the game on overtime and one sergeant was supervising, Gagan said. Additionally, on-duty officers may have stopped by while on shift, something the captain defends.
“I actually encourage patrol officers to stop by the games,” Gagan said. “It’s good to show support.”
The allocation of six officers and a sergeant, Gagan said, was reasonable for the circumstances.
“You never know what can happen at an event,” he said. “It’s better to be well prepared than under prepared.”
Those are the choices officials face – pay overtime for officers to interact socially with the community, integrate those relationship-building efforts into regular work hours – or invest the money and time in other areas.
Concord, with a population of 122,000, spent $1.3 million in police overtime last year and the most one person accrued was $40,000. But Concord had four homicides last year versus Richmond’s 21.
One homicide can cost as much as $10,000 in overtime, Gagan said. But the extra hours don’t necessarily lead to arrests: two suspects were charged in connection with the 21 homicides last year, according to figures provided by police.
Supervisors must approve all overtime, and the city switched to an electronic scheduling system last month meant to help monitor work hours. The sergeant who made $172,000 in overtime and $39,000 in other pay last year would have had to work an extra 24 hours a week at a standard hourly pay rate of $101 – standard for his rank, tenure, and college degree – to earn that much.
“We know officers are making that kind of overtime,” Gagan said. “It’s not a surprise.”
Still, Gagan said, the number is “pretty alarming.” And the electronic scheduling system will help reform the system and prevent future excessive overtime pay, he said.
If Richmond pays its workers more than neighboring cities, though, it can also better afford to do so. According to fiscal year 2010-11 city budgets, Richmond collected $120 million in general fund revenues, almost double Concord’s $65 million and quadruple Antioch’s $35 million.
Some cities, including San Francisco, have had movements to require city employees live in the city, which would boost the tax base – but most of those movements have failed because they are not practical or legal, said de Vries, the Berkeley economist.
Richmond will come to the end of its four-year contract with the Richmond Police Officers’ Association this summer, and the city might renegotiate its union agreement.
“[High salaries] strain the city finances,” said Walker, the Berkeley historian. “It creates some real tension, racial and otherwise around paying people who don’t live in town. Some times these things get really out of whack.”
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