Voter-approved measure triggers sharp growth in supervisors’ salaries

BY NATASHA LINDSTROM
STAFF WRITER

SAN BERNARDINO • Higher paid staffers, bloated benefits and a voter-approved salary hike have helped nearly double the budget for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in the past five years.

Residents who object to the roughly $150,000 salaries for county supervisors — whose paychecks have ballooned by 84 percent over the past decade — have mostly themselves to blame.

The whopping boost in supervisor salaries accounts for about one-fifth of the growth in the overall Board of Supervisors budget, which jumped from $3.3 million in 2004-05 to $6.6 million for 2009-10.

In 2006, San Bernardino County voters approved Measure P, an initiative promoted for limiting county supervisors to three terms — with the added impact of increasing their salaries by 22 percent the first year and by more than 53 percent by 2009. The measure set board member salaries at the average of those in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, with an additional 7.5 percent increase for the board chairman.

Backed by the Board of Supervisors, Measure P was criticized by some as a ploy by supervisors to use the popularity of term limits to help line their own pockets.

“This particular measure, which was approved by the voters under the guise of term limits, if you’re cynical you would say that people who pushed this initiative probably saw term limits coming and then decided that perhaps they could compensate for that a little bit financially,” said Steven Frates, senior fellow at the Rose Institute for State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. “In democracy, you get what you voted for, and it’s important to read the fine print.”

But 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt argues Measure P, which passed by about 56 percent, was well-covered in local media and won the public over by bolstering the competition for county offices.

“Our voters are smart enough to know what they are voting for,” Mitzelfelt said. “Some argue that the higher salary could attract higher quality candidates in some cases. Also, some argue that term limits result in less entrenched incumbents and more voter choice.”

In 2007, county supervisors contributed to their budget’s growth by quietly voting to pad their benefits packages.

Their board retirement benefits shot up from $7,514 to $16,640 annually. That’s on top of $13,000 to $28,210 per year in health benefits, with no contribution necessary.

In May supervisors rolled back those perks effective at the start of their next terms, reducing their retirement contributions back to $7,514 and trimming their health benefits to match exempt county employees at a maximum county contribution of $11,838 per year.

Supervisors still get an additional $2,400 cell phone allowance and $14,200 vehicle allowance, or a county vehicle.

As neighboring counties lowered supervisor salaries this past year, San Bernardino County’s supervisors salaries dropped nearly $2,000 to $150,183.

Aside from the supervisors’ payroll, the board’s combined staff has grown from 42 in 2001-02 to 59 today. Those additional positions are increasingly coming with higher price tags, according to county spokesman David Wert.

“Board offices in recent years have replaced many lower-paying field representative positions with higher-paying analyst, special projects and deputy chief of staff positions,” Wert said. “This was done in an effort to provide supervisors with improved oversight over county operations and finances.”

Mitzelfelt’s 1st District office has a $1.5 million budget for 2009-10, which is about 80 percent higher than in 2004-05.

Mitzelfelt said the 1st District historically gets $200,000 to $250,000 more than the other four districts because of its unusual challenges, including dozens of unincorporated communities, seven cities, traditionally higher unemployment levels, many miles of unpaved roads and more territory to cover. The 1st District spans more than 17,000 square miles — more than six times as much as all four other districts combined — and includes about 461,500 people, more than one-fifth of the county’s population.

Despite the overall budget growth, Mitzelfelt said for the past few years the board has foregone $1 million in discretionary budgets typically available to them and will likely continue to do so until the economy bounces back.

The 1st District now has nine full-time staff members and five part-time workers, with nearly four full-time-equivalent budgeted positions left vacant.