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Sep 28

Bell is an Anomaly Not the Norm in Public Employee Compensation

Posted on September 28, 2010 at 4:02 PM by Troy Butzlaff

(Author's Note:  This is my first article on the City Desk Blog.  Additional articles will be posted monthly or more frequently as necessary.  The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not represent the official position of the City Council or City of Placentia. Comments to this article are welcome provided they follow established blog guidelines)


The compensation abuses of several top level government officials including the City Manager and members of the City Council in the City of Bell have drawn much media coverage and public rebuke.  While the compensation earned by these government officials is without question inappropriate and warrants a full and complete investigation, such abuses are genuinely rare and do not represent the compensation levels of the majority of public officials throughout the country.   

Unfortunately what happened in Bell, combined with other published stories of large public pensions being paid to former public employees, has rekindled the age old debate over the issue of pay and benefits between the private and public sectors.  Recent news polls now show that the majority of Americans believe that public employee salaries, benefits, and pensions outpace that of the private sector and are crippling state and local governments from coast to coast.  Under-standably public resentment over excessive pay and benefits of public employees is at a fever pitch right now due largely to the gross compensation paid to public officials in Bell.  While the public has every right to be concerned and question the salary and benefits of public employees, there is no cause to vilify all public servants as being just like those public officials in Bell. 

Public service is one of the noblest professions a person can chose.    The practice of appointing individual citizens to positions of authority to oversee and handle various public services dates back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.A.D. 220) in China. Those that choose careers as public servants are not looking to become rich or famous, but do so because they have an innate sense of civic duty and a desire to improve the quality of life for those living within the communities they work for.

While the media has successfully used the Bell scandal to demonize public employee compensation and benefits as being overly excessive, the facts could not be further from the truth.  According to a recent study conducted by Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations comparing private and public employees with the same educational level, experience and work schedule, private sector employees make 11 percent more in wages and 5 percent more in total compensation than public workers.  For workers with professional degrees — lawyers, say, or engineers — the gap is more dramatic: $175,141 in the private sector, $79,330 in the public.

In Placentia, the salaries and benefits of our employees are not set haphazardly, but are based on a number of factors including:  the technical skills and educational requirements of the position, collective bargaining agreements the City has entered into with each of its three employee unions; and the salary and benefits paid to employees in public agencies of comparable size. Generally speaking the salaries of our employees are on par or slightly below that of public employee salaries paid by other Orange County cities.  The benefits afforded our employees are basically the same as most other cities in Southern California.

It is important to note that the salaries and benefits of our public employees are not set in secret as they were apparently done in Bell, but approved annually by the City Council as part of the budget process.  This is done in an open and transparent manner.  The public is always welcome to examine and comment upon our salary tables prior to their adoption by the City Council.

The City Council has always been committed to transparency in government and in the wake of the Bell compensation scandal the City took transparency one step further by posting the salary and benefits of its elected officials and public employees on its website.  In fact, Placentia was one of the first cities in the State to publish salary and benefit information of its public officials and employees online. 

There is no doubt that what occurred in the City of Bell has permanently changed the way public agencies throughout the country are reporting public employee salaries and benefits.   Is this a bad thing?  No, it is the right thing to do especially if we are to be fully transparent and accountable to the public we serve.  While some public agencies might hide behind the cloak of privacy and argue against such disclosure the City of Placentia believes that the public has a right to know the compensation paid to their public employees.

As public agencies become more transparent in their reporting of public employee salaries and benefits, the issue now is one of public perception that public employees are all over paid and receive excessive benefits.  While it may take some time to reverse public perception of government workers in the aftermath of the Bell scandal, it would be unfortunate to vilify our employees over the abuses of a few public officials in a relatively obscure suburb of Los Angeles. As your City Administrator, I can assure the community that the men and women who work for the City of Placentia are not only the  most ethical people I know and are firmly committed to upholding the public’s trust, but work tirelessly to maintain the quality of life that makes Placentia a pleasant place to live.  These employees have made and continue to make personal sacrifices, whether it be contributing a portion of their salary to offset the City’s cost of their retirement benefit or taking unpaid furlough days, to help balance the City’s budget to allow us to continue providing you with the quality services you deserve.

I believe that our employees want to do the right thing and hope that you will look past what some would have you believe about public employees and join with me in offering them your support and gratitude for what they do for our community.  Your comments and observations on this article are welcome.


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