Transparent California shows six-figure annual pensions, “double-dipping” and more

A friend of mine sent me this URL: http://www.transparentcalifornia.com. Forbes magazine recently wrote this about the website and its database.

“Transparent California is provided by the California Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute as a public service. Transparent California is dedicated to providing accurate, comprehensive and easily searchable information on the compensation of public employees in California. Complete and accurate information is necessary to increase public understanding of government and help decision makers, including elected officials and voters, make informed decisions.”

If it were a serious newspaper, The Union would use this tool to help shine a light on the runaway pension problems in our community and statewide (including six-figure annual pensions and some serious “double-dipping.”) Some of the hard-right folks who complain the loudest about pensions also might find their friends and acquaintances listed here. “People in glass houses …”

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Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

24 thoughts on “Transparent California shows six-figure annual pensions, “double-dipping” and more”

  1. Here are some highlights from this database:

    —I counted more than 15 people who have worked in our County (such as the Rood Center, Grass Valley, Nevada City, School Districts, Fire Districts — along with ones who were collecting pensions from previous jobs with other out-of-town agencies) who are earning more than $100,000 in annual pensions. One of them tops $190,000 annually — in public retirement income! A bunch are in the $80K-$100K annual range.

    —Public safety (police, fire, etc.) management salaries routinely top $100K, eclipsing other City Hall positions, including City Manager.

    —Lack of transparency in Nevada City called out
    “Please help us procure these records for Transparent California by respectfully requesting that government officials fully comply with California’s Public Records Law and provide Transparent California with the requested records in an Excel-compatible format. Every citizen has a right to know how government is spending his or her money, and you have a right to respectfully request that this government agency abide by the law and allow you to see how your money is being spent.”
    http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/nevada-city/

    All told, excessive pensions is a problem that needs to be addressed in Sacramento more than our County. But it is another reminder that it remains all around us.

  2. This kind of explains why we need to generate more tax revenue, aka more building development, so as to cover the outlandish and unsustainable pensions. Maybe it’s time we redirected this conversation to the real reason(s) we’re in this financial pickle that forces us into compromising the quality of life of many because of the greed of a few.

  3. Hi Reinette,

    There is no doubt that GV’s annexation of Brunswick Basin, for example, created a demand for more police, fire and other services, etc., hence the need to “feed the beast” of government services.

    This is an open secret among people at the County level, who openly discuss it. Here are some Grass Valley figures from this database:
    http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/2012/grass-valley/
    http://transparentcalifornia.com/pensions/2012/calpers/?e=CITY%20OF%20GRASS%20VALLEY

    I’m all for a “thriving economy,” but Grass Valley needs to be more transparent and accountable about what we really mean by that. We need construction jobs (along with others) but we also need to diversify our economy beyond construction and real estate, which are cyclical.

    In addition, the GV council sets the pay rates for city employes, which are tied to the Calpers benefits, as well as decides whether to annex property (or not). They are the ones who largely are responsible.

    While Reinette seems to have become a “lightening rod” for this conversation (i.e., making it personal and sometimes nasty), this issue is widely discussed throughout our county, by people of all political stripes. I’ve heard it many times.

    I support sewer up at the Loma Rica Airport (instead of septic) and would be happy to support that initiative. But we need to have a more honest dialogue about development and the reasons behind it.

  4. Since you have in effect posted thousands of other people’s incomes are you going to post your income as well? And what about the retirement income of Wall Street CEOs? If you want to see something obscene take a look at those. There is a trade-off that most people, particularly business people, don’t recognize. Most public employees trade a lifetime of lower wages (in comparison to private sector employment with similar responsibilities) for better benefits while they serve the public’s interests rather than their own. Why people complain about this in light of tax shelters in the Cayman Islands, capital gains laws that favor the wealthy, and subsidies for big business is beyond me. It is not retired public servants who are the problem. The whole “bash public servants and their benefits and blame them for revenue shortages” is a right wing ploy to destroy collective bargaining and distract public discussion away from the real problem of income inequality and you appear have bought into it just like all the other dummies.

  5. Joe,

    This is a link to a public database involving public funds. This database has been getting a lot of ink, in Forbes and other publications. http://www.google.com/#q=transparentcalifornia.com Others such as SacBee.com have databases like this, and the County is transparent about salaries.

    To be sure, the private sector has abuses, which have been well documented here and elsewhere. https://sierrafoothillsreport.com/2011/10/04/cozy-relationships-and-peer-benchmarking-send-ceos-pay-soaring/

    Instead of getting defensive, it’s time to have a more honest discussion. And believe me, the one on this blog is just the tip of the iceberg.

    BTW, the income I derive from public funds also is a matter of public record, and I accept that.

    1. Why should public employees have a lesser degree of privacy than private sector employees, just because it is tax dollars that directly pay their salaries rather than indirect tax dollar based income from subsidies or government contracts? My point is that if income information for public employees made public is acceptable, than so should everyone else’s income information. Otherwise it creates a situation without adequate context to put income issues into perspective while violating the privacy of an entire segment of our population.

      1. Joe,
        A lesser degree of privacy? The compensation/benefits of private sector managers (and in some cases, the rank-in-file) is routinely disclosed in SEC regulatory filings for their shareholders, just like the public sector. It’s the law, and it’s becoming more transparent in the private sector. As for the rank-and-file in government, their salaries are funded with public dollars. My income from the public sector is readily disclosed (as with nearly all government contracts), and I accept that. Nowadays society is embracing transparency over “privacy rights,” because trust between the governing and the governed is at an all-time low. I’m hopeful that one day trust will be restored, just like you. Having said that, most government workers around here appear to earn what they deserve. I have first-hand experience and can vouch for that. Still, there do seem to be some extreme examples “toward the top” of the ladder — a pernicious “good old boys/girls network” is at play in our community, and it should be addressed. We’ll be tackling that (again) in the near future. Stay tuned.

  6. Very good Jeff. been looking at it for a long time. greed has many faces, but it’s becoming more obvious that those who call themselves public servants have reversed their position. The people now serve them. We continually hear government crying it doesn’t have enough money for needed services as an excuse to raise more taxes on those on the outside. Individuals who build a house in rural areas are responsible for their sewage, water, road, electricity, propane or natural gas, fire protection, and public schools. They’re already paying high taxes on their property just for living here. Obviously, the scary part you described is government unions with the power to eventually take everything.

    1. Bonnie,
      You proved Joe’s point. Many “public servants” earn their pay. They are not “greedy”; the people who granted them the benefits — typically elected bodies — are to be held accountable. They are elected as “watchdogs,” not “lapdogs.” Too often it is the elected’s “go along to get along” mindset that gets us in a financial pickle. I would caution you against judging others, too, since many of your like-minded friends also are earning six-figure annual pensions. There is a lot of hypocrisy at play here. And remember, we are not just talking about raising taxes; we are talking about the risk of compromising a rural lifestyle to help support it (i.e., via development). BTW, people who buy houses without the basic services provided in a municipality also have to hold themselves accountable.

      1. Jeff…Most government employees belong to unions who negotiate pay and benefits including retirements. Human nature’s greedy addiction comes in all shapes and sizes….especially if someone else is paying for it.

  7. In addition to being called out on this database, I notice the City of Nevada City is no longer linking to its staff salaries on the front of its website. This a real transparency problem.

    1. Don’t know who said or wrote it first, but the following axiom seem to fit the historic lack of transparency from 317 Broad Street: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

  8. I don’t think the website is a priority at Nevada City Hall. To do it right, they would have to hire some techie (and probably buy some new computers) – and pay another pension no doubt! lol
    So, you see, they are saving us money!

    I got a kick out of Orange Cove, CA. They are noted as refusing to provide the documents.
    Nevada City’s software is probably just so antiquated that it is incompatible with the modern database software.

  9. Bonnie and Joe,
    This is a good example of how people “in the middle” get run over. My interest is in introducing the website to the public — and letting them decide. I’m more confident (than not) that people will be able to sort this issue out for themselves. The voters are smart. They can sort through the politics, regardless of motives. I bet some of Bonnie’s like-minded friends and acquaintances are among those receiving six-figure annual pensions, so I’m hoping she sees the human side of the equation, not just the political one. I hold the agencies who approve these packages accountable, not the individuals and not-so-much the unions. You can be a “watchdog,” or a “lapdog.” The buck stops with the “electeds.”

  10. I just did a quick look and I found that you have to look for the real title of the employee. For example: I looked at fire captain (covered by the same pension as others in the “fire” departments) and I saw that the average is in the neihborhood of $180,000 (I assume that’s per year but have no way of knowing). I then looked for “firemen” and the average is about 40,000 – $50,000 for the same period .

    When the right criticizes public employees they always point to the top of the food chain for income and pensions (the irony of this is that most of those fire “Captains” are Republican) and never look at the guy who mows the lawn at the park who might get about $25k a year for a pension.)

    1. Yes, and seldom does the right look at the top of the corporate food chain for comparisons. If one wishes to talk about double dipping then the corporate CEO who pulls down $1.4m a month plus their $1600 in Social Security ought to be on the list as well.

  11. The point of it all is the private sector has fallen to a point where income inequality has become so bad it is a major issue. The private sector points the finger at public sector to take the microscope off of their own failures. Public sector workers are paid to keep the infrastructure and our country flowing relatively smoothly. Usually they earn less for comparable education and experience than private sector in exchange of a more secure retirement. Public sector worker wage increases are usually very structured and kept at very low increments, easy planning. When tax laws change or economic emergencies that results in less revenue coming in the structure of the public payroll/ pensions are set in place from binding contracts. It also works the other way around. When we are in a boom cycle pay generally doesn’t veer away from the structured pay increase scale either.

    The unfunded liability is a straw man. Unless we end public pensions/ benefits where today’s enrollees stop paying into the system the pension plans will work. This straw man argument is much like the Social Security mock debate. Stop the funding and a program doesn’t work, it is that simple. Are there problems? There isn’t a single perfect man made system out there but instead of looking at the anomalies or the top of the chain of these systems lets look at the overall pluses to the programs.

  12. Here’s an interesting study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College which shows that the unique fiscal mismanagement — including that of the public pension system — is not characteristic of the nation as a whole. Small comfort to us Californians.

    Click to access slp_36.pdf

  13. Here’s the other side of the pension issue:

    “Robert Johnson, executive director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, has been researching the so-called pension crisis in the U.S. and has found that underfunding is not nearly as widespread as the media, stoked by anti-pension campaigners with deep pockets, has portrayed (see my AlterNet article on his research). Further, he found that places where funding problems do exist are often troubled by corruption. Pay-to-play schemes and bribery are common, and barring obvious corruption, big money politics often has a deciding influence over the management and allocation of pensions. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has pointed out that local and state politicians are relying more and more on Wall Street and other anti-pension business interests for funding, and this creates incentives to move pensions from safe vehicles to more risky things like hedge funds and private equity.

    […]

    “Over in Rhode Island, State General Treasurer and Wall Street veteran Gina Raimondo, a Democrat now running for governor, has been touted as a hero of pension reform. But her reform has also focused on moving pension funds into Wall Street vehicles. The New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson questioned Raimondo’s activities back in October 2013 in an article aptly titled “ How to Pay Millions and Lag Behind the Market.” Morgenson described an investigation into the pension system’s recent plunge into alternative investments which highlighted the high costs, risks and poor returns:

    “The investigation, by Benchmark Financial Services, a forensic firm hired by a Rhode Island council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, concluded that the $7.7 billion Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island was at risk because of its increased concentration in high-cost and opaque alternative investments. The union represents workers whose pensions are invested by the state.

    “In less than two years, the Rhode Island pension system has ramped up its investments in hedge funds, private equity and venture capital from zero to almost $2 billion, or more than one-quarter of its assets under management. But this mix of investments hasn’t outperformed the fund’s peers, the Benchmark report said. For the year ended June 30, 2013, the fund returned 11.07 percent, versus 12.43 percent earned by the median public pension fund.”

    From:

    “How Corrupt Politicians Like Chris Christie Partner with Wall Street to Rip Off American Retirements: We may not be able to fire Wall Street, but we can send its elected friends packing.”

  14. Who is Mike Sherman? Oh, he’s just another vocal anti-government local drawing a sweet Calpers pension in his “golden era.” Thanks TransparentCalifornia.com.

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