From The OC Register:
The California controller's government compensation site, which details pay for almost every public employee in California, has been widely praised as a big step forward in government transparency.
But is the controller's compensation data misleading?
A public-employee-union watchdog group thinks so, and it has released a series of reportsintended to highlight flaws in the controller's methodology that it says causes average wages for full-time employees in many municipalities to be understated by as much as half.
Ed Ring, the research director for California Public Policy Center and editor of Unionwatch.org, says his group is concerned that the controller's site makes compensation appear far lower than it actually is.
The big flaw is this: The controller's site automatically calculates an average for each city based on the compensation reported for every employee, both full- and part-time. Since most cities have hundreds of people in temporary and part-time jobs such as lifeguard, animal shelter attendant and secretary, those numbers skew the average downward.
The CPPC did its own analysis of three Orange County cities' payroll data to quantify the cities' total spending for full-time employees' wages and benefits. In addition to removing the part-timers and temps from the mix, the CPPC then added in benefits, which further ups the ante.
Here's how the calculations for three Orange County cities stack up, using the different methodologies:
• In Anaheim, the controller's website showed city workers earned an average $56,850 in total wages during the 2011 calendar year, but city payroll data for the same year showed full-time workers earned an average$97,123 in total wages and $146,551 in total compensation.
• In Costa Mesa, average wages for all city employees was reported as $72,177 by the controller's site for the 2011 calendar year, but city payroll data for the same year showed full-time workers earned an average$108,760 in total wages and $146,863 in total compensation.
• In Irvine, average wages for all city employees was reported as $48,506 by the controller's site for the 2011 calendar year. A new study released this month by the CPPC, which looked at 2012 calendar year data, showed full-time workers earned an average $95,752 in total wages and $143,691 in total compensation.
"Having these health insurance and disability insurance benefits are all good things, but they come at a cost," Ring said. "Let's just put real numbers out there so people can decide what we can afford and where to draw the line."
The state controller's office launched its Government Compensation in California data tool in 2010, to improve government transparency by making it easier for people to find and compare compensation data. The controller's office describes the website as the most comprehensive of any state in the nation. Tools added last year gave users more options to sort and analyze the information.
Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the controller's office, said last week that the data tool is imperfect, in part because of legal issues and the necessity of collecting uniform pay numbers from thousands of government entities throughout the state. But officials are constantly collecting comments and suggestions from the public to help improve the data tool, Roper said.
"It's very much a work in progress; we just try to provide as much data as we can," Roper said. "This is basically version 2.0. It looks better than it did a year ago, and it will look better a year from now."
In the meantime, the California Public Policy Center and the controller say the public should be aware of a few things when using the controller's office data:
• "Average wages for all employees" is calculated by adding together regular, overtime, "lump sum" pay (includes cash payments for unused sick time and vacation) and "other" pay (includes pay for the time it takes to change into a uniform, extra pay for being bi-lingual, and bonuses) for all workers, whether they are full-time, part-time or temporary. That total pay figure is then divided by the number of workers, which produces the average for all employees. Employer-paid benefits including pensions, health-care programs, insurance costs and deferred compensation, are listed as benefits and are not included in wages.
• Some compensation, including "per diem" payments and allowances for cellphones and vehicles, may not be included in wages or benefits.
•All of the compensation data is submitted by local and state offices, and the controller's office does not perform audits to make sure the information is correct. But the controller's office can identify serious problems by comparing tax information with payroll, Roper said.
It's worth noting that the leaders of the California Public Policy Center have worked to limit the power of public employee unions. For instance, Proposition 32, a November 2012 ballot measure written by CPPC PresidentMark W. Bucher, a Tustin lawyer, would have limited the use of union dues for political purposes. The measure was defeated by voters. Bucher pushed a similar, unsuccessful measure in 1998 and another in 2010 that never got on the ballot.
Among the California Public Policy Center's main complaints with the controller's website is that it seems to focus on wages, while benefits are less obvious, and total compensation is not calculated anywhere.
Total compensation is a particularly important tool when comparing wages in different employment sectors, Ring said.
"It's the only way you can do an accurate apples-to-apples comparison of what people make in the private sector and the public sector," Ring said. "Should these workers be getting more than they would make doing the same jobs in the public sector?"
Controller's officials say users can compile total compensation for individual positions by clicking on an individual position and adding the wages and benefits listed, or by exporting the raw data for individual agencies and conducting their own analysis. Users also can screen out most part-time and temporary workers by extracting the raw data and removing employees labeled as part-time or temporary.
(The Register did this with the controller's fiscal-year data for Irvine to see if we arrived at a number for average compensation of full-time workers similar to the number that the CPPC calculated for the 2012 calendar year. We did get to a comparable number, but it wasn't easy: It required a modern version of Excel and a bit of expertise in working with data.)
"There's no 'one' way to look at the information," Roper said. "That's why we make the data available directly, so users can download the raw information and focus on what they want to research.
Pay and benefits in Irvine will be under discussion in the coming weeks as city officials and union leaders begin renegotiation of employees' contracts, which are slated to expire this summer.
Mayor Steven Choi said that the city has been trying to treat employees well for their quality of work, and benefits such as pensions were generous in times of good financial health. But with the economic downturn and employees living longer, the city now faces about $91 million in unfunded liability for retirement benefits it has already promised, a long-term funding shortfall Choi said was "unsustainable."
"We've been paying too generous benefits, so let's do something about it," he said. "I think that's what the movement is now, and I think rightly so."
Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran disagreed.
"They (city workers) earn every cent they get," Agran said last week. "This is why the city has such high level of public services delivered on a consistent and reliable basis and why people continue to work here for the city of Irvine – because they know that we respect and reward their outstanding work."
Jennifer Muir, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees' Association, which represents more than 18,000 public employees in Orange County, said the California Public Policy Center's study was a politically motivated attack on public employees and unions.
Aside from promoting the center's anti-public employee union agenda, Muir said, the reports are misleading and shift focus away from the discussions that matter most. Union leaders have long urged for people to consider the possibility that private-industry employees are being undercompensated and should receive retirement benefits and health coverage.
Data released in July 2012 by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed that private-sector workers took home less pay per hour than government workers, had less access to medical and retirement benefits, and paid a greater share of medical plan premiums.
In the nation's Pacific region, 59 percent of private-industry workers had access to retirement benefits, compared with 91 percent of workers employed by state and local governments, the report said. Sixty-nine percent of private-sector workers in the Pacific region had access to medical benefits, compared with 88 percent of state and government workers in the same region.
"What we really should be talking about as a community is how we ensure all Americans are paid a fair wage for a good day's work," Muir said.