Friday, September 23, 2011

The Realities of Ventura's Compensation

A couple of weeks ago in a letter to the VC Reporter, Ventura resident Meryl Wamhoff lambasted the City for a variety of supposed fiscal sins, including overcompensating executives, saddling Ventura taxpayers with the cost of Bell's egregious fiscal shenanigans, and not looking at ways to cut compensation in order to balance the budget. Unfortunately, Mr. Wamhoff's letter was incorrect on many counts. Here's the letter I wrote to the VCeporter (published this week) in response:

To The Editor:

Meryl Wamhoff’s letter lambasting reporter Shane Cohn for his perspective on government and taxes (“Just another liberal reporter…,” Letters, Sept. 1) certainly brought a provocative viewpoint to your pages. Unfortunately, Wamhoff was inaccurate in the claims he made about the city of Ventura. (“Tale of two taxes,” News, 8/11)

First, Wamhoff claims the taxpayers in Ventura will be footing part of the bill for the outrageous pensions of two top city of Bell employees, each of whom worked in Ventura early in their careers. This is not true, partly because of a proactive approach by the city of Ventura.

Ventura, along with other cities the pair subsequently worked for, supported a bill in the Legislature — almost certain to be signed by the governor in the next few weeks — that will force Bell, not Ventura or other cities, to foot the bill for their inflated pensions.

As it turns out, CalPERS, the state retirement agency, has already taken action to slash the pensions that were estimated in early press accounts. Instead of getting $411,000 a year, former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams will receive $268,000 — admitted, still a huge number but far less than it otherwise would be. Former Bell Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, who worked for Ventura in the 1980s, had her pension reduced from an estimated $250,000 per year to $43,000 per year.

Secondly, Wamhoff asserts that Ventura “overcompensates its public employees.” In fact, however, Ventura’s pay scales are much lower than surrounding jurisdictions, such as the cities of Oxnard and Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara County. City Manager Rick Cole makes $172,000 a year in base salary, which is about $60,000 less than his counterparts in Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, and $100,000 less than the city manager of Oxnard. City Attorney Ariel Calonne makes about $190,000 a year, which his $30,000-$40,000 less than most of his counterparts around the county. Both recently took a 7 percent pay cut to contribute to their pension costs. So Wamhoff is wrong in asserting that we “never once considered that the compensation packages for these bureaucrats are too generous.” It was the first thing we considered and we acted on it.

This same pay difference is true up and down the organization. I really appreciate the loyalty and dedication of our city employees, but we frequently lose them to Thousand Oaks, Oxnard and Santa Barbara County, all of which pay 10-20 percent more than Ventura does. Over time, this could cause Ventura to become a “farm team” for these other jurisdictions — something that will surely harm our city government’s ability to get the job done, and something I believe no one in Ventura wants.

Wamhoff is right to be concerned about the compensation and retirement obligations of government agencies these days. It is a major concern to all of us in public life. And I understand that if Wamhoff believes the compensation of all government employees generally is too high, then he’s likely to think that Ventura pays too much no matter what the pay scale is.

It is wrong, however, to single out Ventura as an example of government’s financial problems, when we have worked much harder than other jurisdictions to be both moderate and fair in our approach to compensation and retirement.