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Santa Monica Municipal Budget Among Highest Per Capita in California
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

November 15, 2016 -- The City of Santa Monica's $1.1 billion biennial budget was among the highest in the state and is driven by “unbelievably excessive employee compensation,” according to a researcher for Transparent California, a statewide watchdog group.

Based on the group's latest analysis, total compensation for City employees was seven times higher per capita than the average for municipalities in California, said Robert Fellner, the Las Vegas-based organization’s research director.

Santa Monica tied with Beverly Hills, with each resident paying $3,200 for city employee compensation alone, the study found.

"While every incremental tax increase will point to a specific project -- paving roads, affordable housing, more cops on street, etc. -- the real driver for those taxes is the unbelievably excessive employee compensation," Fellner said.

Based on public records statewide, the study also found:

· Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrook’s total compensation of $478,120 for 2015 was the highest among police chiefs in California. The package included $309,396 in pay and $168,724 in benefits.

· Santa Monica also was home to California’s highest paid assistant City Attorney. In 2015, Joseph Lawrence earned a total compensation of $442,414. He was also the third most highly compensated employee in Santa Monica.

· The City’s “farmer’s market supervisor” received $140,000 in total compensation, and the assistant city librarian received a pay and benefits package totaling $220,000

· City bus drivers averaged $109,000 in total compensation.

City Manager Rick Cole, hired in 2015, was not yet in the group’s database but Fellner said he is expected to be among the top-paid city managers in California in three years. He was hired at $329,424 a year, plus health benefits and 21 days of immediate vacation.

Cole was provided with seven months of $2,000-a-month relocation funds and a home loan at 3 percent interest for a home not to exceed $1 million.

Asked to comment on the report's findings, City officials said:

"Our City offers a competitive base salary to our employees. We aim to attract and retain excellent staff. The pay our staff earn is commensurate with the talent we are getting and for the caliber of services provided to our community."

Fellner disagrees.

“Public pay at Santa Monica is obscene,” he said. “And at 72 percent of the General Operating Fund, it’s the main reason why they have some of the highest sales tax and utility taxes in the nation.”

Paying employees ten percent less, Fellner said, would save $30 million and still leave the City paying above average compensation compared to other municipalities and “wildly in excess of what private workers make.”

Fellner also noted the cut in compensation would save almost twice as much as the new sales-tax hike to 10.5 percent will generate.

Measure GSH is expected to generate $16 million annually, evenly split between the City’s affordable housing program and public schools. It was overwhelmingly approved by voters in the November 8 election.

Santa Monica’s spending isn't often debated by the City Council or the public, even during budget sessions. Demands to close the airport and slow development are issues that cause public uproar -- not big spending of tax dollars ("Proposed Raises Push Many Santa Monica Employees Well into Six-Figure Salaries," June 14, 2016).

Fellner said the mindset is “definitely tied to the relative affluence of the community.

"You can’t see such extreme levels of government pay in places like Inglewood because the taxpayers simply don’t have enough money to take to support it,” he said.

But Fellner had words of warning for Santa Monica’s City government.

“At a certain point, taxes will ultimately harm them as it reduces the number of people willing to visit and spend their money in the community,” he said.

Editor's note: In a special report published in 2003, the Lookout found that the City of Santa Monica spent $1,906 per capita on employee pay. To view the findings read "Great Expectations or Spending Spree?" June 16, 2003.

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