The Riehl World: Public Workers Not Overpaid

by Richard J. Riehl on November 18, 2010

At a September forum for Carlsbad’s mayoral and city council candidates, one city hall hopeful declared good pay for public safety personnel was unnecessary, since so many kids dream of fighting fires and catching criminals. Another claimed that if pay for public employees were cut by a third there’d be no problem finding replacements for those who quit.

Even though both candidates were losers, their comments may explain why voters overwhelmingly approved Carlsbad’s Prop G, which will prevent future city councils from increasing public safety employee benefits. Meanwhile, newspaper headlines continue their assault on public employee pay. In hard times, it seems, we need scapegoats.

Ever since a handful of elected officials in a small town in Los Angeles County were caught helping themselves to astronomical salaries at taxpayer expense, politicians and the press have declared open season on public employees.

The latest example is an article appearing in the North County Times a couple of weeks ago (“Salaries up for county employees,” November 7). The lead-in claims, “Base pay for some increased by 31 percent from 2007 to ’09.” This may have been an eye-catching introduction to a front page story. But it also fell short of the truth.

Follow the jump for the rest of the storyThe increase was in the share of county employees earning more than $100,000 after nearly 600 temporary and student jobs had been eliminated. With 18,700 employees, a more accurate headline would be, “Ninety-five percent of county employees make less than $100k.”

Here’s a comparison of the county’s public employee pay with the wages of workers in the total workforce, as reported by the California Employment Development Department.

The average salary of the county’s 2,700 CEOs is $201,000. That’s .2 percent of the entire workforce. The 25 county employees who earn more than $200,000 a year represent .1 percent of the taxpayer funded workforce.

The county’s chief administrative officer’s base pay is $296,000. He’s the CEO of an organization with a $5 billion budget that serves 3 million residents, exceeding the population of 20 states.

By way of comparison, the San Diego Business Journal reports the highest paid banking executive in the county, PacWest CEO Matt Wagner, earned a base pay last year of $750,000, with a bonus of $562,000, for total compensation amounting to $1.5 million. The bank’s total assets were $5.2 billion.

By that measure, I’d say we’re getting a bargain for our county’s top leadership.

What about those other public employees earning at least $100,000?

The average salary of the county’s 2,000 physicians and surgeons is $219,000. The highest paid medical practitioner on the county’s payroll is a psychiatrist earning $216,000.

The county’s 6,000 attorneys earn an average of $145,000. Public defender attorneys have salaries ranging from $120,000 to $137,000.

This small sample, comparing the pay of jobs requiring specialized skills, education and training, suggests public employees are paid somewhat less than those in the private sector.

There are 128,000 waiters, waitresses, janitors, maids, housekeepers, cashiers and retail salespersons in the private sector who earn pay ranging from $21,000 to $26,000 a year. That’s why the $37,000 median wage of the county’s workforce is well below the $60,000 average of the more highly skilled, educated and trained public employees.

Carlsbad’s two hapless politicos were right. Kids love cops and firefighters. And the high unemployment rate would likely produce a plentiful supply of desperate job seekers for taxpayer-funded jobs at lower pay. But would we really want the primary qualifications for those who protect our lives and property to be a childhood dream and the willingness to work for food?

It’s time for politicians and the press to stop scapegoating public employees for hard times they didn’t create.

Richard Riehl writes from Carlsbad. Contact him at

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: