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Santa Monica City Pay and Benefits Climb at Double the Inflation Rate, New Data Shows  

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

May 2, 2017 -- Employee pay and benefits at Santa Monica City Hall grew at more than double the rate of inflation for metropolitan Los Angeles since 2012, according to data released by a statewide watchdog group Monday.

The data obtained by Transparent California through public information requests show the city's payroll costs climbed 16 percent in four years to reach more than $303 million in 2016.

The 2016 data show 1,380 full-time employees receiving pay and benefits of $100,000 or more, or two-thirds of the 1,838 full-time employees on the payroll. The median household income in Santa Monica is $74,534 annually.

Including part time employees, the City’s workforce in 2016 totaled 3,088 people, up about eight percent since 2012, according to the data from Transparent California, part of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

As is the case with many governments, the City of Santa Monica's biggest cost is paying for employees, which accounts for 60 percent of the general fund budget.

As in the past, the highest-paid employee was Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks.

The data shows she earned $309,287 in 2016, with a total compensation package (which includes benefits) of $488,033.

In the second and third-place slots were Deputy Police Chief Alfonso Venegas, who earned $299,653, with total compensation of $453,831; and Police Captain Kenneth G Semko, who earned $284,685, with total compensation of $451,606.

Fourth on the list is City Manager Rick Cole, hired in 2015. As of last year, Cole made $361,707, with total compensation of $447,945.

Santa Monica City Hall is under rising pressure to curb employee costs, which are among the highest for municipalities in California, including those in wealthy enclaves like Beverly Hills.

City officials said they have nothing to add to previous comments that Transparent California's data fails to consider the high quality and extent of services the City delivers ("Santa Monica Defends High City Salaries as Key to Quality Services," December 6, 2016).

Nonetheless, the council is expected to consider creating a temporary citizens’ committee this month that will help internal auditors delve into how compensation and staffing is determined and what -- if anything -- can be done to curb costs.

Employees at City Hall are mostly covered by union contracts, signed off on by a City Council that is proudly pro-union.

Soaring pension costs are also a looming crisis for the City, as is the case for the public sector throughout the nation and in California, which is known for its generous retirement packages.

The City’s total cost for pensions is about $1 billion. Of that, by City estimates, $387 million is unfunded.

A local watchdog group says the City's rising payroll influenced the final draft of the Downtown Community Plan, which makes exceptions for large hotels that generate big revenues for the city ("Proposed Santa Monica Hotels Offer Revenue Bounty," April 26, 2017).

"These reported ongoing increases in employee total compensation may help explain the proposed Downtown Community Plan, with its otherwise baffling emphasis on unsustainable towering hotels and fast track overdevelopment," said Diana Gordon, who heads the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC).

"Last year, SMCLC requested the City Council's Audit Committee carefully review the size and pay of our City workforce to find ways, long ignored, to reduce this pressure, which fuels overdevelopment and waste," she said.

One critic said Monday’s data highlighted the need for the City Council to approve the proposed ad hoc committee, which would consist of five residents working with the City’s Audit Subcommittee.

A council vote is expected within weeks.

“I applaud the City for moving forward,” said Dominic Gomez of Northeast Neighbors, one of several neighborhood associations and watchdog groups zeroing in on City spending practices.

The City’s 2016-2017 budget is $614.1 million. Of that, $358 million in revenue is in the general fund, although expenditures total $409.1 million.

Almost 60 percent of the general fund is spent on employee costs.

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