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Santa Monica Public Safety Employees - What Do They Cost?  

By Melonie Magruder
Staff Writer

April 21, 2011 -- With budget crunchers in Sacramento and City Hall looking at ways to deal with the fiscal deficits that seem endemic to governance these days, many have accused public employees, their unions and their pension plans to be the unsustainable gorilla in the living room.

The Lookout did a comparison of public safety employees in three local cities to examine what they cost in base salaries, benefit plans and ongoing pension expenses. All city websites list salary ranges and benefits packages for all city positions, with outlines of what those packages include, usually vested after five years of service.

Because terms are renegotiated regularly between the city and employee unions, Memoranda of Understanding (or MOU’s) issued each year can increase the base numbers, but the tables below give an idea of just what a public safety employee costs a city, both during his employment and after he retires.

Public safety employees are generally the highest-paid positions in the city. Because most positions in public safety have several levels of advancement, for the purpose of this article, we are listing the highest attainable annual salary in each position (in rounded numbers), as defined by each city’s wage scale.

In Santa Monica:
Police Officer $88,000 Fire Fighter $83,000
Police Captain $144,000 Fire Captain $117,000
Police Chief $209,000 Fire Chief $202,000
In Beverly Hills:
Police Officer $89,000 Fire Fighter $89,000
Police Captain $190,000 Fire Captain $124,000
Police Chief $243,000 Fire Chief $243,000
In Pasadena:
Police Officer $65,000 Fire Fighter $83,000
Police Captain $149,000 Fire Captain $130,000
Police Chief $228,000 Fire Chief $212,000

By way of comparison, the highest paid teacher in Santa Monica – after working 18 years and with 70 or more postgraduate units – makes $86,700.

Santa Monica currently employs 202 sworn police officers, not including the Police Chief, according to numbers provided to the Lookout by Donna Peter, the city's director of human services.

The number of sworn fire staff is 96, not including the Fire Chief. Peter said that when recently hired firefighter recruits complete their training, that number will increase to 105.

Compensation packages for all cities surveyed generally include a number of health insurance plans from which to choose, dental and vision insurance, life insurance, deferred compensation plans, uniform and cafeteria allowances, paid holidays of between 40 and 160 hours annually, paid bereavement and sick leave and city contributions to CalPERS or another pension plan.

For public safety employees, the cities usually contribute between seven and nine percent of the employee's salary and pension payouts generally run three percent monthly of the employee's highest attained salary level.

Thus, for a Santa Monica police officer who retires at age 55, having attained the highest pay level of $87,000, his annual pension payout would run about $31,000. For a police chief who retires at 55 having achieved a salary of $209,000, his annual payout would run about $75,000. Should that individual live another 25 years after retirement, his pension payout would eventually cost $1,875,000.

While the actuarial cost of benefits packages per employee were not readily available from any city surveyed, City Manager Rod Gould estimated in a recent five-year forecast for Santa Monica’s economic future that those packages could equal 68 to 87 percent of the “benefit load” payout (depending on rising healthcare insurance costs and other factors) five years from now.

Councilmember Bobby Shriver confirmed with Gould that this could mean, for example, that a police officer making a salary of $100,000 annually would actually cost the city $187,000 each year with pension and benefits contributions.

The largest part of the benefits package is unquestionably contributions to CalPERS. With state fund investments fielding double-digit losses during the recent recession, instead of seeing the seven percent-plus gains they had anticipated, state retirement funds are shrinking alarmingly. At a time when people are living longer, a day of reckoning looms.

“The foreseeable future will put tremendous pressure on cities across California,” Gould said of the benefits costs.


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