Community Commentary: Daily Pilot editorial made too many sweeping generalizations

Re. "Editorial: Brown's pension reforms a good starting point," Oct. 30: "Public pensions were created to give public servants a larger stake in their jobs than any bribe could replace."

It's startling to read such a forthright statement in an America where municipal bribery is as uncommon as the word mordida. Yet, most adults understand why this could be true. The source is an expert in public administration, Catherine Burke, an associate professor emerita of public administration at USC, in a Los Angeles Times letter, "Better than a bribe," Oct. 20.

"Public servants are exposed to great temptations, and there are people who would pay to have a police officer avoid a certain place at a certain time," she wrote. "Others are willing to buy off a building inspector. A good pension diminishes the temptation to take dirty money."

This is the kind of fresh, going-below-the-surface kind of background Newport-Mesa needs if we are to have an informed discussion about compensation of private vis-a-vis public employees.

The Daily Pilot's editorial is itself a good starting point for this discussion. It shows how important it is to be clear about complexities and to watch out for simple answers. As H. L. Mencken observed, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong."

My first concern flows from the Pilot's assertion, "The typical public employee's work is no more special or meaningful than private-sector work, and those who perform it ought to be compensated at market rates as they relate to salaries, retirement, and vacation and sick time."

This statement is too sweeping. The Burke quote about forestalling bribery is a simple example of why at least some public-sector workers should be compensated at a higher rate.

A second concern is that there can be factors that aren't immediately obvious that can differentiate even very common tasks. Take the typical task of mowing lawns, for example. Businesses can outsource this. Some cities can as well. But it's kept in-house by the local school district. There are several reasons for this, but one that's especially pertinent here is the safety issue.

Safety of the children is the highest priority for schools, even higher than their education. Schools have to go to great lengths to protect their students from, for example, pedophiles and kidnappers on school grounds. Consequently, it is much safer to use a consistent workforce for landscape care, that is, "permanent" school employees, than to trust that school management can always oversee in sufficient detail an outsourced workforce that can change from week to week, that is, employees of the lowest bidding private employer, some of whom can be transient day-laborers.

A third concern is that the basic rule in the discussion should be that no apples vs. oranges comparisons be tolerated. The need for this is illustrated by the Pilot's comparison of compensation: "The average salary for all Californians in 2009 was $50,000 … The average state employee's base pay … was $65,000 the same year." Big difference, right? The trouble is, if done correctly, the differences could be larger or smaller.

The numbers aren't comparable in several respects. In private-sector businesses there are people who regularly make more than over $20 million each year; there are no such animals in government. A better approach would be to use the median instead of the average. This way, distorting outliers would be excluded.

Another problem is that state employees are prohibited by law from getting bonuses, whereas nonpublic employees aren't. As we've seen in the recent financial scandals, workers in some industries get relatively small salaries, but count on large bonuses and profit-sharing distributions at the end of the year.

Another complication is that some private-sector workers earn commissions that may be much larger than their salaries.

One additional detail: City workers, except for public safety employees, get only compensatory time off when they work overtime, as opposed to nonpublic workers who get, if they are hourly, time-and-a-half or double-time. In these times, when private employers shed workers and expect the remainder to take on extra work, overtime pay greatly adds to take-home pay for nonpublic workers.

Add up these details and it's clear that apples have been compared to oranges: It is grossly distorting to compare "average salary for all Californians" with "average state employee's base pay."

In light of these arguments, we should all take a deep breath and, in the future, dig much deeper before making sweeping generalizations about a very complicated set of issues.

TOM EGAN lives in Costa Mesa.

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