Laguna Beach had more employees making salaries of $100,000-or-more per capita than any other Orange County city in calendar year 2009, but none were deemed to be overcompensated by the Orange County Grand Jury.
A Grand Jury report issued Monday that compared salaries and benefits paid in county cities questioned whether a town of about 23,000 really needs 22 top officials and upper-level employees, not including emergency personnel to run Laguna.
The report also gave the city low transparency grades Feb. 1 for making it difficult for the public to find out who makes how much for doing which jobs, but steps were taken this week to make the information more accessible, City Manager John Pietig said.
"We have compiled the salaries and benefits on one page, which can be found under the 'How do I?' headings on the city's website," Pietig said Tuesday.
The city manager found that some of the findings in the report lacked context.
"However, cities provide different levels of services, and I don't think it was appropriate to compare Laguna to cities that don't offer the same services," he said. "We have our own transit system, unlike many other cities, our own animal shelter. We maintain our parks and beaches and our sewer system. We do our own street sweeping.
"You need skilled people in information technology, finance and personnel departments when you don't contract out services."
Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. President Martha Lydick said no position will be taken by her group until the report is thoroughly reviewed.
"We do have more expensive personnel, but we are surrounded by hills, open space and the ocean, and we need special services," Lydick said.
Taxpayers Assn. Vice President Dennis Myers refers to the city as the Isle of Laguna.
"It is more expensive to live here, and that also affects salaries," he said.
Comparisons of compensation and benefits in the study were limited to 11 positions: City Council member, city manager, city clerk, city engineer, finance, public works, parks and recreation, community development, human resources, information technology and building official.
Laguna topped only one of the 11 lists: $179,064 listed as paid annually to Public Works Director/City Engineer Steve May, who is paid one salary for both jobs. However, the amount listed included a cash-out of sick leave.
"He certainly doesn't get that every year," Pietig said. "And it was not foot-noted, as it was in other cases."
The Grand Jury found that the number of high-level positions generally is related to the population in most of the county's cities — except for Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
"Residential population does not represent service population," Pietig said.
He noted that the city has trimmed its workforce since the economic downturn.
"The city has eliminated 10 positions in the last three years and one of them was making over $100,000," John Pietig stated in an e-mail to the Coastline Pilot.
More than 100,000 tourists can visit Laguna on a summer day and throughout the year on sunny days. The influx means more litter on beaches and streets that must be cleared, more people trying to get onto the free summer trolleys the city provides and more people crossing streets, Pietig said.
Years of employment were not factored into the report, and salaries generally are computed and announced for fiscal, not calendar, years, Pietig said.
Pietig signed a contract for $210,000 when he succeeded veteran City Manager Ken Frank in December, putting him less than $3,000 above the average in the county, after nine years as assistant city manager.
The Grand Jury report notes that 21 city managers make a base salary of more than $200,000.
"It is important to question how much is spent on personnel and municipal services to be sure they are appropriate for the services provided by a city, the market, local economy and community preferences," Pietig said. "But to effectively compare costs, the Grand Jury needs to make a more in-depth analysis of services."
WHY IT WAS DONE
Compensation of public officials and employees has long been a subject of citizen concern, exacerbated by allegations of gross abuses of taxpayers' money in the city of Bell, according to the study.
The study attempts to give citizens an objective and thorough report, analysis, findings and recommendations, but the primary purpose was not to question compensation paid to any individual.
HOW IT WAS DONE
Raw data collected from the 34 Orange County cities provided the basis for the report. A total of 1,847 positions were submitted in response to the Grand Jury's request.
The study does not include any analysis of benefits paid after retirement or pension plans, but does include pension-related costs incurred by cities during active employment, such as the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) contributions.
Compensation analyses contained in the report exclude police, fire, electric utility and Great Park employees. Several cities do not have any police and/or fire positions because they contract with the county.
The report notes that the Grand Jury's compensation figures differ from information posted on the state Controller's website in November 2010, due to different calculation methods and a broader focus.