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Santa Monica Defends High City Salaries as Key to Quality Services
Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
Roque & Mark Real Estate
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Santa Monica, CA 90404
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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

December 6, 2016 -- Reacting to new public scrutiny of Santa Monica City government salaries -- among the highest in the state -- City Manager Rick Cole has posted a defense saying the reports are “true, but misleading” and fail to consider the high quality of services delivered.

In his December 2 post to his “The Long View” blog, Cole acknowledged Santa Monica City salaries and benefits are above average for Southern California cities but contended they are not “wildly out of line,” as some critics say.

Using the California State Controller’s Public Pay website as his source, Cole said that Santa Monica has the lowest average employee compensation cost among Westside cities.

The average cost for workers is $83,356 in Los Angeles; $79,179 in Beverly Hills; $74,285 in Culver City; $72,906 in West Hollywood, and $72,379 in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica, heavily populated by the fiscally well off, has been criticized periodically in the past for the amount its City government devotes to employee compensation.

Payroll data for 2015 released in mid-November by Transparent California, a statewide public-spending watchdog group, triggered a new round of news coverage that Cole said he realized “touched a nerve” with the public in Santa Monica ("Santa Monica Municipal Budget Among Highest Per Capita in California," November 16, 2016).

Among the group’s findings was that 105 City employees received more than $300,000 in total pay and benefits in 2015.

It also showed Police Chief Jacqueline Brooks was the highest-compensated city employee that year, with a total wage and benefits package of nearly $478,120.

Although her regular pay in 2015 was $306,000, critics noted the base pay for Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck -- who oversees policing for the nation’s second-largest city -- was $344,000.

Santa Monica has about 200 officers, compared to the LAPD's force of about 9,000.

In his blog, Cole said the figures from Transparent California were basically correct, but misleading. The amount included in the City’s costs were not for basic wages, as he said the public thought after Transparent California's disclosures.

Instead, the employee compensation that raised eyebrow included health, vision and dental car,e as well as retirement costs. And the wages were before taxes, not the much smaller take home pay -- a difference that Cole said some news agencies failed (although not the Lookout News) to make clear.

Robert Fellner, the head of Transparent California, said Cole’s defense of City salaries “is a bunch of misdirection” and does not include “a single legitimate point about the validity of our data or how we reported it.”

In particular, he singled out the average $72,379 in total compensation for City employees cited by Cole as misleading.

Fellner said it is based on data that includes 838 temporary or part time employees who received $25,000 or less in 2015’s payroll, dampening overall average compensation in Santa Monica city’s total payroll.

He also said Cole erred in comparing compensation for L.A. employees, whose pay and benefits are higher because of the size of the city and skewed comparisons with smaller cities as a result.

Cole said in his post that some residents were “astonished that salaries made up 72% of our General Fund budget. But that is pretty standard for cities (nearby Culver City is 77% of their general budget).”

“After all, cities don’t make or trade goods,” Cole said. “We provide services and those are mostly provided by people -- whether it is patrolling our streets and responding to fires and medical emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week; or maintaining our parks; or driving our Big Blue Buses. We spend a lot on books in our Libraries -- but you only have to buy a book once.

“You have to pay the library staff every hour that the library is open -– and our four branch libraries are all open 49 hours a week and the Central Library is open 63 hours a week,” he said.

The state’s Office of Comptroller included almost 2,950 full-time and part-time positions in city government, with total wages of $213,263,795 (including $22,986,992 in overtime and $17,584,285 in lump-sum payments and other money).

Another $32,674,684 was paid for City contributions for health, vision and dental plans and $87,057,335 for the city’s costs of employee retirement that year.

Cole’s defense did not convince Santa Monica activists, who have now asked for special audits into wages and benefits and the size of the City’s government.

Diana Gordon of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) said the group is especially interested in compensation for the City Attorney’s Office.

She said that, according to Transparent California’s website, two of the three highest compensated people in a City Attorney’s Office in the state are in Santa Monica; five of 15 most highly compensated employees in such offices across California are in Santa Monica and 15 of the 40 best compensated such employees are also in Santa Monica.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who is retiring at the end of the year, received total wages in 2015 of $316,528, with benefits totaling $108,930, for a total compensation cost of $439,969, the payroll data found.

Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence topped her slightly, with a total compensation package of $442,414, Transparent California said.

“City employee deserve fair and reasonable compensation,” SMCLC said in a letter to the City’s Audit Subcommittee, sent December 2. “So do all employees, everywhere.

"But our City government is also the steward of public funds. It has a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of residents and the public."

She said Cole has agreed to work with the subcommittee on the issue.

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