The Tip of the Iceberg

The scandal surrounding the salaries of city officials in Bell, California continues to make ripples:

The scandal over high salaries paid to Bell officials has city leaders throughout the state scrambling to limit the political damage.

City halls have seen an uptick in residents calling to find out what their local officials make ever since the story broke two weeks ago and prompted widespread public outrage.

On Thursday, city managers from across the state will gather in Sacramento to discuss damage control. Among the ideas on the table: launching an independent examination of city officials’ salaries and compiling a database of salaries for municipal executives.

The Legislature also is mulling several Bell-inspired proposals, including a requirement that cities make salaries easily accessible on websites. Another suggestion would cap pensions of highly paid city officials, an issue that arose after The Times reported that former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, who earned nearly $800,000 a year, would receive roughly $600,000 a year in pension benefits once he retired.

It wasn’t just the city manager. The chief of police was earning a half million dollars a year, the chairman of the city council way into six figures, and each city councilman was earning a hundred thousand a year for a part-time job.

It might be helpful for me to explain just what was going on here. It wasn’t merely that city officials had been able to secure ridiculously high salaries for themselves away from the prying eyes of taxpayers although that would have been bad enough. Bell participates in the California state retirement system. Under that system the participants in the system all share in the underwriting of the system.

Pensions paid to public employees are paid based on a certain percentage of their wages from their last several years of service. The Bell officials were not only boosting their salaries to get the money now. They were boosting them in anticipation of big payouts from the pension system for the rest of their lives, looting not merely the taxpayers of Bell but those of the entire state.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem of public pensions and their abuse is one that reaches from the president of the United States to the lowliest town dog-catcher, from the federal government down to villages of 50 people.

If I were king I’d do the following:

  • No elected official at any level would be eligible for any pension whatever as a consequence of being elected to office.
  • Being elected to office would automatically disqualify individuals from pensions previously vested as a consequence of working for government at any level.
  • The pension plans of all civil servants at all levels of government would be converted to defined contribution plans rather than defined benefit plans.
  • Public pension checks should only be mailed to addresses within the jurisdictions in which the pensions were vested. Having pension checks mailed to addresses other than a primary residence should be considered fraud.

The present situation is a scandal and an outrage. I have no confidence that short of action by the federal government analogous to Eisenhower’s sending of the 101st Airborne to Little Rock Central High School a great deal will be done about it. Even if the state governments manage to curtail the very worst abuses in outlandish wages for public officials we’ll still have ridiculous pension commitments, the fruit of years of fraud and abuse, and state elected officials will be afraid of rakebacks affecting their own pensions.

3 comments… add one
  • Icepick Link

    ■No elected official at any level would be eligible for any pension whatever as a consequence of being elected to office.
    ■Being elected to office would automatically disqualify individuals from pensions previously vested as a consequence of working for government at any level.

    What about pensions acquired after leaving elected office? California insituted term-limits some time back. What happens now is that pols that leave office now get appointed to various kinds of state boards (by their friends still in office) where they collect more money and run up their pension benefits. Sinecures take many forms.

  • Drew Link

    I think dot points one and three might be the most effective actions, with number one perhaps acting as a de facto term limit.

    So where do we have the throne delivered?

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