Reporting from Sacramento -- As hundreds of millions of dollars are slashed from state programs for the needy, California's new social services director is set to collect more than $343,000 in annual pay and benefits in an unusual hiring arrangement that will make him one of California's top-paid bureaucrats.
William Lightbourne will be paid a $216,611 salary — tens of thousands of dollars more than is earned by Gov. Jerry Brown, the attorney general or the head of the state's Highway Patrol system. He will make $51,000 more than his predecessor because the employment agreement skirts a state law that establishes wages for the post.
Lightbourne, 61, will also receive a $400 monthly car allowance, even though lawmakers and other state officials are being stripped of their state-paid vehicles to save money for cash-strapped California.
Lightbourne, the longtime chief of social services in Santa Clara County, will be paid through the county, with the same wages and benefits he received in that post. The state will reimburse the county for the full amount.
Taxpayer advocates say the price is too steep, especially as California is drowning in red ink.
"This is public service gone crazy," said Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, headquartered near Sacramento. "What is so special about this person that anyone would consider paying this kind of money?"
California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley, who authorized the pay package, said Lightbourne's compensation "is worth it to the people of California" because he has the "skills and expertise for the challenges we face."
The state is paring back many of the programs Lightbourne will oversee, including welfare, food stamps, foster care and in-home assistance for the elderly. At the same time, California plans to transfer more responsibility for social services to local authorities.
Lightbourne has been hired to watch over that transition — "nimbly, I hope," he said.
Dooley praised him as "one of the foremost leaders" in managing programs for the needy. To offset his salary, she said, she was eliminating the position of deputy director.
Lightbourne has been social services chief in three California counties: Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. He was courted by Los Angeles County for a top job this year until he withdrew his name to take the state post.
"When the state was recruiting me, I said I was willing to take on part of the challenges ahead, but for personal reasons I needed to have continuity [of compensation]," Lightbourne said. He declined to elaborate.
Lightbourne will supervise about 4,000 employees and various programs that serve 3 million Californians. Salary for the post is set by law at $165,000. Benefits typically add roughly 33%, said Department of Personnel Administration spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley. Total compensation normally would be about $220,000 — $120,000 less than Lightbourne is making.
Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita), who has spoken out against cuts in social services, asked whether any state bureaucrat is worth such a salary when California faces a $15.4-billion deficit.
"It's especially difficult to swallow when individuals that depend on this department are having their own support payments reduced," Smyth said.
Lightbourne's contract with California runs from May 2011 through December 2014 and will cost taxpayers more than $1.25 million if he stays for the full duration.
Lightbourne said he wouldn't be distracted by criticism of his pay package: "My focus has to be on the job I've got to do."