Monday, August 9, 2010

How Not to Run a Local Government

Brick wall with the words City Hall Bell California on itIt's nice to know I can still be shocked.

The 40,000 people of Bell, California (just outside Los Angeles) were recently shocked, too, when they found out their local taxes were supporting a bunch of city employees and elected officials in a style that was well beyond the city's means.

This municipality -- made up of 90 percent Latino residents with an average household income around $30,000 a year -- was employing a city manager at an annual salary of $788,000, a police chief at $457,000 and an assistant city manager at $376,000.

For a little comparison, the city coordinator of Minneapolis makes $147,000, and its police chief $145,000. (By the way, those two numbers appear on the home page of the Minneapolis city website.) For laughs, I did some math and found that if city managers were paid per resident, the Bell manager was getting $20 a head, which if applied to Minneapolis would mean a salary of $7.6 million... applied to Los Angeles, it would mean $77 million.

I heard about Bell's problem with salaries a week or two ago, choking on my morning toast. But given whatever else was going on at the time, I didn't manage to write about it here. But yesterday I read a more recent story about these folks' additional compensation, on top of their outlandish salaries.

The city manager also got contributions to investment funds and "20 weeks paid vacation, [which] brought his total annual compensation to more than $1.5 million." His $386,786 in paid vacation and sick benefits mean that he "took home more money in vacation compensation than any governor in the United States makes for annual salary" [emphasis added].

20 weeks of vacation! Out of 52 weeks in a year? What?!

The assistant city manager's total package of goodies was worth $845,000 and the police chief's $770,000.

How did this come to be? Well, it doesn't seem clear yet, except that these contracts were approved by the city council, who themselves were paid almost $100,000 a year for part-time work. (The average salary for part-time city councils in California is $4,800.) Again, comparing to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis's full-time council members are paid about $80,000; St. Paul's half-time council members receive $55,000.

I am not arguing against paying city council members a living wage; not doing so has negative consequences. San Antonio, Texas, for instance, pays $20 per council meeting (under $2,000 a year) for basically full-time work, pretty much ensuring that only the wealthy or retired can afford to do the job. Minnesota's own part-time legislature comes close to that, in my opinion, with its low annual salary of just over $31,140, which leaves legislators vulnerable to outside compensation that can easily slide over the line into influence purchasing.

But how much work can it be to sit on a city council for a suburb with 40,000 residents? The Bell city council members seemed to know their salaries wouldn't withstand public scrutiny, because they hid 98 percent of their pay by allocating it among various city commissions whose roles were not actually separate from the job of the city council.

Needless to say (well, it should be needless, but in this day and age, you can't be too sure), all hell has broken loose in Bell. The gold-plated employees have all resigned, the city council has cut its salary to $8,000 a year, and there are multiple investigations underway by the state attorney general and other higher ranking officials.

For a while it looked as though the employees might end up with retirement compensation almost as high as their salaries, but that's been quashed as well.

What can we learn from this Bell botch-up? Two things that should have been obvious: Transparency about the use of public money in general and reporting of all compensation (not just salaries). The LA Times has been compiling such info on all the cities in LA County.

For those of us in Minnesota, check out this convenient page that compiles the salaries of all Minnesota public employees, including city council members. Hosted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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