By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The number of city and county government employees in Sonoma County who were paid more than $100,000 in 2009. Half worked for the county and a quarter worked for the city of Santa Rosa. Half worked in public safety jobs.
Nearly 1,200 city and county workers in Sonoma County were paid more than $100,000 last year, a plateau that is reached by a higher percentage of workers in the public sector than their counterparts in the private sector, according to a Press Democrat analysis of local government salaries.
A new database, compiled by the state Controller’s Office, reveals how much money was paid to each of the 8,618 city and county workers in Sonoma County last year, from a lifeguard in Rohnert Park who earned a total of $14 to the county’s top administrator, who was paid $282,348 before he left his job.
The percentage of city and county government employees in Sonoma County who were paid more than $100,000 in 2009. Overall, 8.2 percent of all workers in the county — public and private sector — earn more than $100,000, according to U.S. Census figures.
The median earnings for a worker in a city or county job in Sonoma County were $56,085 last year, according to a database analysis. By comparison, the median earnings for workers across the county — including private and public sector jobs — were $31,190 last year, the U.S Census Bureau reported.
“It doesn’t seem equitable,” said Fred Levin, executive director of the 500-member Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. “Are we getting the service we deserve for the money? We know the answer is no.”
But Santa Rosa’s newly hired city manager, Kathy Millison, said the payroll figures are a reflection that much government work relies on people with advanced education and extensive experience.
The compensation of the highest-paid local government employee in 2009: former County Administrator Bob Deis, who resigned in June 2009. Former Santa Rosa City Manager Jeff Kolin, who resigned last January, was second at $231,010.
“We pay for a higher level of skill sets,” Millison said of employees earning six figures. “When you look down the list, you see attorneys, accountants, engineers and most of the executives.”
The highest-paid jobs in local government are held by managers and public safety workers. Police and fire account for 20 percent of city and county workers but 29 percent of payroll. The state’s list gives salaries by position but does not identify workers by name.
Overall, city and county employees in Sonoma County were paid $492.7 million last year.
While corporate executives can earn far more than government employees, a larger proportion of government workers are members of the six-figure club.
The average salary paid to the 8,618 people who received paychecks in 2009 from city and county government in Sonoma County. Public safety workers, who account for 20 percent of municipal employment, were paid $80,782 on average.
The analysis shows that 13.7 percent of city and county government workers in Sonoma County were paid more than $100,000 last year — a level achieved by just 8 percent of all public and private sector workers in the county, according to Census figures.
The top salary across the county and its nine cities is currently paid to County Administrator Veronica Ferguson, who makes $235,000 a year. She said county wages — including 623 jobs that pay over $100,000 — are on a par with other counties.
The prevalence of six-figure incomes is due to the “specialized professional services,” such as attorneys, physicians and public safety officers, required to run the county, she said.
The amount paid in 2009 by every man, woman and child in Healdsburg toward the city’s payroll, the highest per-capita in the county. The smallest: $281 per resident in Windsor. The countywide average: $606 per resident.
Source: state Controller’s Office
Ample benefits used to be the major attraction of public sector jobs.
“Over time, the salary levels have crept up closer to the market,” said Santa Rosa’s Millison, who makes $215,000 a year.
Public safety employees dominate the top-paying jobs, occupying 36 percent of the city and county positions that paid over $100,000 last year.
“I don’t know if that’s a service you want to do on the cheap,” said Jim Leddy, the county’s community and government affairs manager.
In Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park — the three largest cities — fire and police jobs account for 41 to 54 percent of the workers making over $100,000.
And it’s not just the brass earning the big incomes, as police sergeants were among the five highest-paid workers in Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cotati.
One Santa Rosa police sergeant made $176,299 last year, just $4,700 less than the police chief and more than the chief financial officer, city attorney and the utilities and public works directors, according to the controller’s database.
The sergeant also earned more than the city managers in Healdsburg, Sonoma, Sebastopol and Cotati.
Top scale for a Santa Rosa sergeant is $124,740, and the extra $51,559 would be primarily due to overtime, which drives up wages for many public safety workers, Millison said.
Three of Santa Rosa’s top five wage earners were fire battalion chiefs, whose base pay is augmented by overtime and response to emergencies outside the county, Millison said.
Overall, public safety accounts for more than half of the total payroll in Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Sonoma, Sebastopol and Cotati.
In Santa Rosa, public safety employees hold 22 percent of the city jobs, but take home 40 percent of wages.
In Healdsburg, a fire engineer was the highest-paid employee at $166,998 last year, according to the controller’s database. City Manager Marjie Pettus said the wage must be due to overtime.
There were significant differences from city to city in the number of workers earning over $100,000, ranging from 4.5 percent of town employees in Windsor to 25 percent of municipal workers in Petaluma.
City and county jobs account for about 4 percent of Sonoma County employment, with local government payroll costs for taxpayers varying on locale.
On average, each resident pays $554 annually to fund payroll costs in their city. Healdsburg had the highest payroll per-capita last year, at $1,055, while Cotati had the lowest, at $386.
The state database lists salaries, health and pension benefits for workers in cities and counties across California.
Cloverdale is the only local city that had not yet submitted information on wages, a controller’s office spokeswoman said Wednesday. Cloverdale City Manager Nina Regor said the city submitted payroll data to the controller’s office on Monday.
The state database was created in response to the corruption scandal in the Los Angeles County city of Bell, where the city’s top six administrators made a combined salary of $6 million a year.
In August, state Controller John Chiang ordered California cities and counties to report wage and benefit details for all employees.
Eighty-three percent of local governments complied, resulting in a database that lists compensation for more than 594,000 city and county employees.
The Bell scandal showed that “we need more aggressive oversight of local agencies,” said Hallye Jordan, the controller’s spokeswoman.
The controller’s report “is really a tool for Californians to make a decision about what’s going on in their city or county,” Jordan said. Anyone upset by the information should take it up with local elected officials, she said.
Salary and benefit data for workers in special districts and for all state employees will be added to the controller’s online database by next June, Jordan said. The information will be updated annually.
“Transparency is the new buzzword,” said Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan, noting that “it took the pillaging of Bell” to make public employee wages readily accessible.
“This should have been done decades ago,” he said.
McCuan said he was not surprised by the prevalence of six-figure public sector jobs in Sonoma County, with 1,180 out of 8,618 city and county workers in that range.
The county had more than half, with 623 jobs, or 12 percent of 5,217 jobs paid more than $100,000, according to the controller’s report. The county had 10 of the 15 jobs paying more than $200,000.
Santa Rosa reported 305 jobs over $100,000, or 16 percent of the city’s 1,880 workers, close to the statewide average of 15.5 percent.
The three smallest cities — Sonoma, Sebastopol and Cotati — were below the statewide average for workers making more than $100,000.
Windsor, with only nine of 198 workers paid more than $100,000, was far below average — largely because it has no police or fire department, said Jim McAdler, administrative services director.
“Other than that, I can’t think of any difference,” he said.
Windsor contracts with the Sheriff’s Office and the Windsor Fire Protection District for public safety services.
One-fourth of Petaluma’s 433 employees were paid more than $100,000, a rate far above the county and statewide average. City officials did not respond to a request for comment on the payroll figures.
Healdsburg’s $12.4 million payroll, divided among 11,782 residents, came to a cost per person of $1,055, twice as high as Petaluma, Sonoma and Sebastopol.
City Manager Pettus said wages for most mid-management and staff employees are “above the mean” when compared to salaries at other Sonoma County cities.
Another factor, she said, is Healdsburg is “a full service city,” with its own electric utility, water and wastewater treatment operations. Electric utility workers generally earn more than public safety employees, she said.
Millison, who heads Santa Rosa’s 1,880-member workforce, acknowledged that government is not entirely run like a business.
“Are we organized strictly for efficiency?” she said. “I would say we are not. We deal with a public process. Democracy was set up that way — not to be the most efficient.”
Government cannot respond to an economic downturn as quickly as business, Millison said. City officials are still in negotiations with labor groups over compensation concessions in a fiscal year that started five months ago.
SSU’s McCuan said that top public salaries are driven up by the “churning” of the job market as administrators move from city to city, causing city councils to feel “they have to outbid each other” for the best talent.
But the job movement, much of it lateral rather than upward, “artificially inflates” salaries, McCuan said.
Whether local government salaries in Sonoma County are excessive is hard to judge, he said, because it would have to consider the seniority of employees and the cost of living here compared to other areas.
The controller’s database is valuable, McCuan said, but it “is also going to fan the flames of laying waste to the public space and those who dedicate their lives to public service.”
Levin, the taxpayer’s advocate, said the report “tells me that I should be a government employee.”
News Researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this report.