March 25, 2007

CA cop earned $175,000 in a year...not including pension and healthcare costs

How a San Jose cop earned $175,000 in one year
By John Woolfolk
San Jose Mercury News

Article Launched:3/25/07

The top annual salary for a San Jose police officer is $86,000. But one officer last year more than doubled that figure, earning a total of nearly $175,400.

How? Welcome to the world of "special pays," a combination of overtime, on-call work and other extras that put this officer among the 100 highest-paid of the city's 6,800 employees.

While the average Silicon Valley worker might marvel at such opportunities to boost one's salary, for a public employee it's all perfectly legal and above-board.

And the officer was hardly alone - one firefighter with an $84,000 salary was paid more than $163,000 last year, according to city records. While those are extreme examples, they show that for many city employees - in civilian as well as public safety jobs - their salary is just the beginning of their take-home pay.

San Jose's compensation structure includes 135 categories of extra pay, though no single employee can get them all.

The city's average employee salary and benefit costs have risen 45 percent since 2000 and recently come under heightened scrutiny. Mayor Chuck Reed, elected last year on a platform of fiscal responsibility, has noted that employee costs account for almost two-thirds of the city's nearly $1 billion operating budget.

And with a vow to eliminate recurring deficits, Reed has asked the city to look for ways to slow those growing costs as labor contracts come up for renewal.

Health care a factor

Employee Relations Director Alex Gurza said the various pay categories aren't primarily responsible for soaring employee costs, noting that most have been part of the compensation package for a decade or more. The biggest culprits, he says, are health care costs, steep pension payments and salary increases.

Still, the menu of salary extras illustrates the complexity facing city officials as they attempt to tackle runaway employee costs. Each uptick in the base salary rate can be magnified by special pays, which are often based on percentages of that base figure. City officials say those costs are tracked and taken into account when new labor contracts are negotiated.

Special pay beyond basic salary isn't unique to San Jose. Other cities offer similar provisions to their employees. Mountain View, for example, offers an extra $100 a month to bilingual officers and $50 a month for civilian employees who speak a second language. Mountain View canine officers get an additional 5 percent of salary to cover care for their police dogs.

But neighboring Santa Clara doesn't pay police extra for canine duty - their cops just get time off to spend on animal care and training. Santa Clara also doesn't offer extra pay for anti-terrorism training or higher levels of certification from the state Peace Officer Standards and Training organization, as San Jose does.

While extra cash for overtime, specialized training or foreign language skills might not raise many eyebrows, San Jose administrators have questioned the justification for at least some of the special pay.

City Manager Les White has asked that the city no longer pay a stipend to deputy managers for attending meetings of an advisory committee that oversees the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant. That stipend added $800 to one deputy city manager's $160,000 base salary and $100 to the $189,000 base salary of the other who qualified for the payment.

"That's ending," said Tom Manheim, a spokesman for the city administration. "It didn't seem to make sense that city employees are paid extra to do their job."

Many of the pay categories, however, have been negotiated in union contracts and can't be so easily eliminated. Still others are recent additions. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the city council approved a new 5 percent pay booster for all police to attend an annual in-house anti-terrorist training. San Francisco later adopted a similar program.

No names divulged

Apart from a handful of top administrators, it's unknown which employees are making what in salary and pay extras. The city, citing privacy concerns, has refused to release employee pay information by name unless the California Supreme Court, which is weighing lawsuits seeking disclosure by the Mercury News and other newspapers, orders otherwise.

By far the costliest special-pay category is overtime - usually one-and-a-half times the regular pay rate. It cost San Jose a total of $21.5 million in the last fiscal year and has been controversial for years. Particularly when it comes to the city's thinly staffed police and fire departments, where extra hours often are required.

City officials have argued it's cheaper to pay overtime than to pay the salaries and benefits of additional cops and firefighters. But union leaders say that strategy leads to costly injuries in a city with the state's highest proportion of big-city public safety disability retirements. They'd prefer a bigger staff to big overtime paychecks. The city has recently begun adding small numbers of police and firefighters to ease the staffing shortage.

But not all overtime is tied to overwork. Firefighters, who work multiple 24-hour shifts in a 56-hour week, are automatically paid overtime for three of their 56 hours. What's more, those who take on "administrative assignment" roles while working regular business hours are paid an additional $36 a day to make up for the loss of overtime pay.

Toward top of list

"Premium pays" for special skills and assignments are another big source of income, particularly in public safety jobs. The city's $175,000 officer, whose base pay is $83,400, wouldn't have cracked the top 100 highest-paid on $47,864 in overtime alone. It took special pay for extra training, on-call premiums and the extra compensation for having a police dog to help bring the officer near the top of the list.

While most of those categories are unique to public safety jobs, certain skills or circumstances also allow civilian city employees to boost their paychecks. City employees who decline the city's health and dental coverage get paid the money the city would have spent on it. For housing director Leslye Krutko - who is married to another city official and could get coverage under his health plan - that was worth an extra $5,350.

Some employees also can cash in their unused vacation. So for the city's busy redevelopment manager, the top overall earner of 2006, that contributed $8,648 toward his total pay of $254,000.

And in increasingly multicultural San Jose, bilingual ability is a big plus. There's extra pay for those who demonstrate fluency in another language - that's worth $754 a year - and $286 more for those who can read and write as well in another tongue.

Employee union leaders bristle at the suggestion that any of their members' pay is unreasonable, noting for example that public employees aren't eligible for Social Security retirement or perks like stock options that are available to their private-sector peers.

Police and firefighters say that even in the self-proclaimed Safest Big City in America, their jobs are dangerous. Five firefighters and an officer were hurt in December when a burning downtown house exploded, and a rookie officer was fatally shot making a routine traffic stop in 2001.

Erik Larsen, president of the city's largest employee union representing 2,900 librarians, janitors and other workers, said many struggle to pay the bills in high-priced Silicon Valley. Top base salary for a senior water meter reader is $59,000 in a region where $59,400 qualifies as low-income.

"Let's not demonize public employees that live in a region that has the highest cost of living in the country," Larsen said.

Contact John Woolfolk at or (408) 975-9346.

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