Public service in California can pay pretty well. Besides the recent scandal in Bell, CA, a similar debacle occurred when the Alameda County Administrator retired with an annual income over $400,000 a year. The cash alone exceeds the salary of the POTUS who nevertheless would seem to have a superior perquisite package.
This latest highly visible fiasco raises the heat over public compensation packages. Arguments about the equity of public versus private pay have raged for decades and will not end soon. Current economic constraints have focused new spotlights on accusations of excessive public sector compensation. Taxpayers tend to become irate when they suspect that their servants are out-earning the bosses. Feelings of injustice are further inflamed when those who elect public officials and pay the taxes that fund government salaries find their hard-earned money used to enrich insiders.
Other commentaries indicate that such outlier cases are the exception rather than the rule. These tempests may turn out to exist primarily in teapots, especially when these rare outrageous situations are compared to the mundane reality. The pay at most public enterprises tends to be so badly compressed at the top, for example, that few private industry managers would be willing to take the pay cut required for a government executive position.
What should not be overlooked is that the renewed attention given to issues like this makes the transparency of pay far more important than ever before. Taxpayer-supported entities like municipalities, counties and fire districts are frequently run by officials who have little knowledge of (or access to) compensation tradecraft knowledge. Those familiar with the backroom deals cut in those venues realize just how easy it is to manipulate those ignorant of pay practices into decisions that no responsible rewards professional would endorse. But much of the nonsense occurs in the light of full open disclosure. I have witnessed public sessions at city, country, state and even national levels where any compensation person would be tempted to scream in outrage at the silly statements accepted as gospel by the officials. The low level of pay tradecraft knowledge demonstrated in these situations can only be solved by the involvement of professionals who know their business.
Messes like this could not exist but for the indifference of compensation professionals. If we abandon our responsibility to monitor and review pertinent elements of public decisions in our neighborhoods, we deserve what happens to our money.
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. Semi-retired after over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), and will express his opinion on almost anything.
Creative Commons image "grosso_coins" by dgrosso23