By Marisa Lagos
SACRAMENTO — As California’s elected leaders took drastic steps to cut spending last year, the state was paying hundreds of its workers six-figure earnings that far exceeded base salaries, according to newly released compensation data for public employees.
The data, compiled by state Controller John Chiang, show that more than 500 state employees made more than $240,000 before taxes in 2010. The controller listed last year’s pay for all 256,222 state workers on his website, but did not include their names.
At least nine state workers made more than $500,000 last year — most of them prison doctors and other medical staff. The top 10 earners, combined, collected more than $5.8 million in 2010.
When Chiang’s office first released the data Tuesday morning, they reported the top earner as a prison system psychiatrist who made $838,706 last year. But later in the day, Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the controller, said that figure was erroneous. State officials are reviewing the payroll data and will update it as soon as possible, he said. Without that psychiatrist, Chiang’s database cites the top earner as a prison surgeon who made $777,423 before taxes.
All of the top earners’ pay far exceeded their base pay, and state officials said some were the result of payouts to retiring employees who had racked up extensive paid time off over the years. Others received bonuses, such as the chief risk officer at the State Compensation Insurance Fund, who made $288,000 in a base salary but $561,072 in total wages. And others may have received payment from lawsuit settlements, said Paul Verke, a spokesman for the prison system.
The Chronicle reported in March that the state regularly makes six-figure payouts to retiring employees because managers do not enforce caps on the amount of paid time off an employee can amass, and over the years, that paid time off adds up.
The database was made public last year, at first focusing only on the compensation of city and county employees around the state, Roper said. It was created after media reports revealed exorbitant public salaries for top managers in the small Los Angeles County city of Bell — including a city manager who made $780,000 in 2009. The revelations eventually led to criminal charges against some city leaders.
“After the scandal in the city of Bell, we realized that taxpayers needed a better idea of where tax dollars are going to provide services, and we thought this was a good way of getting the information to them,” Roper said. “It adds value at the local level, so we wanted to add state payroll data as well … to match what we did for the locals.”
Also Tuesday, Chiang released compensation data for the 123,406 employees of the California State University system on the same website. CSU Chancellor Charles Reed topped the list at $399,326 in 2010 pay, while the other top CSU earners were nearly all university presidents making between $288,000 and $372,400.
Statewide, medical employees in the prison system took home the most compensation. Many of those workers are currently overseen by a federal receiver, a position created in 2006 to manage health care in prisons after a three-judge panel ruled that the state’s inadequate medical care led to the unnecessary deaths of about 50 inmates a year. The first receiver gave large raises to most workers under his control, arguing that the state could not attract qualified individuals otherwise.
Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the current receiver, J. Clark Kelso, said Tuesday that most of the top earners were probably employees who retired after working in the prison system for two to three decades. Many of the medical facilities were understaffed for years, she said, making it difficult for workers to take vacations and easy for them to accumulate large amounts of vacation and other time off. The increased salaries have made it easier for Kelso to fully staff those hospitals and medical facilities, she said.
“We’ve been enormously successful at recruiting, so the bottom line is that while it looks like a lot of money, you will now see people being able to take vacations, because we have positions that are filled,” she said. “So, in the future you shouldn’t see such large payouts.”
Kincaid also said that some prisons are more difficult to staff than others. For example, the highest earner, a prison surgeon who took home $777,423, worked at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville (Lassen County) — which she called “one of the hardest” facilities to staff. That employee did not retire in 2010, she said, but is listed in state documents as receiving a “back pay adjustment.”
Kincaid said she does not know the details of that back pay, but that it could be the result of the employee being classified wrongly. And Verke, the prison system spokesman, also noted that the base salaries of some medical employees have been set by court order.
— Reach Marisa Lagos at email@example.com