Several local cities sliced their payrolls through layoffs last year by cutting those who made the least. And they ended up paying more employees six-figure salaries.
The 3,800 employees who earned at least $100,000 annually last year made up 10 percent of the region's city and county workers, but ate 25 percent of payroll. Their ranks increased by about 80, while the number of city and county workers earning less than $100,000 fell by almost 3,000, according to a Bee review of new data from the state controller's office.
The trend was not universal. Cities such as Davis, Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove reduced the number of their workers earning six figures.
But the city and county of Sacramento collectively increased the total amount paid to six-figure employees by $23 million, or 9 percent, while cutting 1,800 workers from their payrolls.
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," said Tana Taylor, who was laid off from her job as an office assistant in Sacramento County's Department of Health and Human Services last year. "Higher-end people – they seem to be hanging in there."
Several city and county leaders said the trend was largely unavoidable due to labor contracts and minimum staffing requirements. Many had to lay off employees based on tenure – and give the remaining employees raises due to their contracts.
For example, the number of county of Sacramento employees under 30 – most of them low earners – fell by 50 percent, to 900, from 2007 to 2010, according to actuarial documents from the county retirement system. During the same period, the number of workers over 30 declined by just 4 percent.
"Workers that were able to stay had higher seniority and are at the higher wage scale," said Chris Andis, a spokeswoman for the county of Sacramento.
The trend also reflects politics and priorities. About 45 percent of the region's municipal six-figure earners are cops and firefighters, and several cities chose to limit public safety cuts in favor of reducing staff in parks, health care and social services, where fewer highly paid employees work.
"Instead of monitoring labor costs, pay rates, and pension costs in response to the recession, they're instead laying off the junior workers in the city who are often the most productive," said Craig Powell, president of Eye on Sacramento, a local civic watchdog organization.
Other factors add salary
Deep budget cuts occasionally created the need for more overtime to fill emergency gaps, they said, pushing pay higher. Also, workers who retire or get laid off usually cash out unused vacation time, which can bump earnings during their final year.
"When those folks leave, they may make $90,000," said Yolo County Administrator Patrick Blacklock. "But if there's a vacation payout, that can cause the total to spike" above $100,000.
About 380 county of Yolo workers retired or lost their jobs during 2009 and 2010, leaving the county with fewer than 1,300 employees.
But the number of workers earning six figures in Yolo County increased from 136 in 2009 to 146 in 2010, according to the controller's office. The amount paid to these employees rose by $1.2 million.
In Citrus Heights, the number of workers earning $100,000 or more grew from 29 in 2009 to 35 in 2010. The town, along with Galt, was one of the only municipalities in the region that saw its total payroll – not just big earners – grow from 2009 to 2010.
Overtime distorts those figures, Citrus Heights City Manager Harry Tingle said. The city still has fewer six-figure employees than most other towns its size.
He blamed the investigation of Robert Adams, the former private school principal in Citrus Heights charged with child molestation, for much of the extra overtime. Budgeting for crime, fire and other emergencies, despite the need for cuts, is difficult, Tingle and others said.
"Growth implies that this (cost) is new, moving forward," Tingle said. "Next year it could be less."
Cuts mean more overtime
"We've had less people to work," Fire Chief Ray Jones said. "Because of that, overtime dollars overall are going to increase."
When members of the Fire Department are called to deploy in a war zone or for a special mission, there is no replacement hiring, Jones said. Those slots are filled on overtime with existing staff.
The Fire Department has hired no firefighters in four years, Jones said. There have been no layoffs; just attrition. And no raises or step increases were given during the last three years.
At the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, workers did get raises, partly to offset a deal that increased workers' contributions to their pensions, sheriff's spokesman Jason Ramos said.
The number of six-figure earners in the Sheriff's Department grew by 25 percent from 2009 to 2010, even though the department employed 400 fewer workers.
Ramos said dozens of workers barely made six figures in 2009, and the raises they received pushed them over the hump.
"A 7.9 percent pay increase would have taken a lot of people above $100,000," Ramos said, speaking of the highest possible cumulative raise given to some sheriff's employees.
An accounting mistake that omitted county contributions on behalf of deputies to the pension system from reported data might explain some of the increase, but county officials weren't sure of the impact of the error and are studying further.
At the Sacramento Police Department, 173 employees earned six-figures in 2010, up by 15 from the year earlier.
Spokesman Sgt. Andrew Pettit said some of that increase was due to overtime accrued while working voluntary hours for businesses or community groups who need security.
The demand for such outside work, which is privately funded, "is quite intense," Pettit said.
In the last fiscal year, officers worked 29,000 overtime hours for outside organizations.
Layoffs that cost
Salaries in excess of $100,000 often result in too few dollars to keep workers in lower-paying jobs, "making it difficult for everybody," said Bob Blymyer, executive director of the Sacramento County Taxpayers League.
Powell, the president of Eye on Sacramento, called for greater control and more transparency in how labor dollars are spent.
He wants more public scrutiny of labor contracts before they come up for a final council vote.
"Labor costs as a percentage of the total budget is now 83 cents out of every dollar spent by the city," he said.
The dearth of entry-level, low-paid government workers limits the public's ability to access basic services, said Taylor, the laid-off county worker.
Fewer rookie beat cops take police reports on car break-ins and fender benders. Fewer junior code inspectors offer timely approval of construction projects.
And fewer office assistants quickly get residents to the person who can solve their problem.
"It's damaged the customer service and made things a lot harder," Taylor said. "People can't get things addressed."
Regardless of caveats, spending more on high-dollar employees is a poor use of public money, officials from watchdog and taxpayer groups said.
At the Sacramento Fire Department, 249 uniformed personnel received six-figure salaries in 2010, up by 48 from the year before.