By Adam Andrzejewski
The Los Angeles area comprises the Hollywood movie studios, Beverly Hills, Muscle Beach, and a previously booming economy that trailed only New York City and Tokyo.
The city is also home to powerful politicians such as U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, Chairman of House Judiciary Committee; U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, Chief Deputy Whip; and Mayor Eric Garcetti, the National Co-Chairman of Biden for President.
However, LA itself is in trouble. Whenever we open the books, the city consistently ranks among the worst tax and spend offenders.
Last year, there were 20,000 highly compensated city employees whose average pay exceeded $147,000 and cost taxpayers $3 billion. All of them made more than $100,000 and nearly 2,000 out-earned California Governor Gavin Newsom ($202,000).
Our auditors at OpenTheBooks.com found painters making $113,943; “tree surgeons” trimming $207,058; police officers with an arresting $325,942; legislative analysts earning $399,631; firefighters hosing down $486,674; and “harbor boat pilots” swimming in $515,000.
Mayor’s Office – Mayor Garcetti cost taxpayers $269,375 in salary – $67,000 more than Gov. Newsom. Seven “deputy mayors” earned $1.44 million with individual salaries each exceeding $200,000. Chief of staff, Ann Guerrero, made $232,205– compensation out earning the mayor of Chicago ($216,000).
Garcetti has an executive staff larger than 48 of the 50 state governors. The mayor employed 261 people last year for $20 million in salary cost.
While permanent staff enjoy handsome salaries, Garcetti also relies on unpaid labor. Although intern positions are available in dozens of departments working on issues such as homelessness, sustainability, and immigration, those internships are not compensated.
The Police Department (LAPD) — Chief Michael Moore pulled down $590,764 last year – double dipping a $350,764 salary and a $240,000 pension. In 2018, Moore “officially” retired, but was rehired 30-days later. The golden handshake helped Moore capture a $1.27 million lump sum payout and another $170,000 check for unused sick and vacation days. Garcetti blessed the scheme.
Last year, LAPD had 14,119 employees on the payroll with cash compensation totaling $1.6 billion. 9,280 employees earned $100,000 and 451 officers made more than $200,000. The top five police officers, sergeants, and detectives made between $300,000 and $325,000 thanks to generous overtime benefits ranging from $129,256 to $152,807.
The Fire Department (LAFD) — LAFD employed 3,934 last year and 3,409 made at least $100,000. Almost 30-percent of the payroll (1,128) made over $200,000.
Generous overtime benefits spiked the pay: 540 employees made at least $100,000 in overtime alone. Extreme wildfires in the Los Angeles area in 2019, which continue in 2020, certainly contributed to the costs.
The top ten firefighters cost the city $4.3 million—an average of $428,307 each. Firefighter Donn Thompson took home $486,674 in pay with $359,416 in overtime. Fire captain Charles Boswell earned $481,020 in compensation with $329,991 in overtime.
Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas took home $332,952—and was still out earned by 67 LAFD colleagues. The total department payroll cost was $654.6 million.
Housing and Community Investment Department—The agency aids people in poverty by administering Section 8 federal grants, rent stabilization policies, the housing code, and services to the homeless population with a 737-employee payroll costing $55 million.
In 2020, the director, Rushmore Cervantes, brought home $254,937 and out earned the Secretary of U.S. Housing & Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, a cabinet-level position ($199,700). Furthermore, four assistant general managers earned more than $200,000.
Despite the high pay and good intentions, the number of homeless people living in LA continued to escalate. Numbers from the city’s own census show 40,000 homeless persons (2020), up 14.2 percent from last year.
A voter-approved $1.2 billion bond issue in 2016 promised 10,000 new apartments for the homeless. However, the actual number of units are now projected to be around 7,600 as construction overruns and consultant fees pushed the cost of some housing units to over $700,000 apiece.
So, the problems seem to be getting much worse. Encampment complaints to city 311 reached nearly 100,000 calls in the 20 months between January 2019 and August 2020.
Port of Los Angeles – Last year, chief port pilots John Dwyer ($515,991) and David Flinn ($503,360) out-earned eleven senior pilots whose pay averaged $417,000. Port pilots help incoming ships navigate the harbor and are the most highly compensated public employees in the city.
The LA port also has their own police force. Top paid police lieutenant Nathanael Blair made $307,530 including $104,082 in overtime pay. Seven more lieutenants earned between $212,759 and $277,314 last year.
The port authority has a public beach staffed by lifeguards from the county. Last year, 44 LA County lifeguards cost taxpayers $200,000 to $365,000 each – with free sunscreen allowance and other benefits.
The agency responded to our comment request saying port pilot salaries are competitive with other ports; it is more costly to hire additional police officers compared to overtime costs; and the port does not pay or have authority over lifeguard staffing.
City Council — There are fifteen city council districts in Los Angeles. Each has an elected member charged with levying taxes, authorizing public improvements, and passing ordinances, among other duties.
Council members earn $207,000 annually – more than every member of the U.S. Congress except Speaker Nancy Pelosi ($223,500). Each office employs 22 to 36 aides. Last year, 58 city council aides took home over $100,000. Andrew Westall of Council District 10 was the top-paid aide ($193,886) and out-earned every state governor except Newsom.
Sharon Tso is the chief legislative analyst to the city council. Appointed in 2014, Tso was paid $283,000. Last year, Tso’s pay spiked to $399,631, making her the 20th top-paid city employee.
Public Works – In 2019, wastewater supervisor, James Pearl was paid-out $2.4 million from his judgement against the city. Pearl, a straight man, alleged sexual harassment from other men on the job at Public Works- Sanitation. The judge awarded Pearl $12 million. The city appealed the verdict; however, the award was affirmed.
In the Street Services division, we found 37 “tree surgeons” and supervisors made between $100,000 and $207,058 last year. Known as tree trimmers in most communities, these surgeons and their supervisors trimmed off a lot of overtime: the top eleven earned overtime pay between $45,206 and $86,306.
Los Angeles’s long-term financial situation looks bleak and the city is asking Congress for a $3.9 billion “coronavirus” bailout. For example, LA has guaranteed $64.3 billion in retirement benefits to public employees.
Unfortunately, $10.7 billion in retirement benefits hasn’t been funded: pensions ($7.9 billion) and retiree healthcare ($2.8 billion). Therefore, each city taxpayer owes $4,000 just to cover the unfunded liability, according to data provided by fiscal accountability organization Truth In Accounting (2019).
Los Angeles is a progressive utopia, so well-meaning fiscal hawks are going to have to cry a lot louder – or they won’t even have a voice at the table.
NOTE: Every agency mentioned in the piece received two requests for comment.