Elected officials in most general-law cities are below the state salary cap, and few take advantage of the 5% annual raise allowed. Some cities skirt the salary cap with generous auto, office and health perks.

By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
August 2, 2011

For all the public outcry over hefty salaries earned by city officials, a Times analysis of compensation figures found that the vast majority of elected leaders earn less than what is allowed by state law.

The data offer a stark contrast to headlines about outsized salaries in communities such as Bell and Vernon, where city managers earned more than $1 million and part-time council members took home $60,000 to $100,000 a year.

About three-quarters of California’s 481 incorporated communities are “general law” cities governed by statutes handed down from the state Legislature. Council members in these cities are restricted to base salary limits that range from $3,600 to $12,000 a year, depending on population. Council members can vote to raise their pay up to 5% each year.

If council members in the largest general law cities had given themselves a raise every year since 1984, when the limits were set, their base pay could be as high as $44,800 this year.

A Times analysis found that average council pay in all but 31 of those communities was less than the legal limits, and most cities rarely took advantage of the 5% annual raise.

The analysis also found that the salary cap law contains several loopholes that allow council members to boost their pay beyond the base salary limits — but that relatively few officials took advantage of it.

Spreadsheet: How does your city’s council pay compare?

“I think councils have been very cognizant of the political perception of increasing their salaries” amid the recession, said Patrick Whitnell, general counsel of the League of California Cities.

In cities that did skirt the cap, the extra pay came in the form of generous auto and business expenses, contributions to deferred compensation accounts or life insurance plans, health plans that in some cases gave the option to take cash in lieu of insurance, and stipends for sitting on commissions.

The scandal in Bell, which resulted in criminal charges against eight former city officials, has focused attention on salaries earned by local government leaders. In response, the state controller’s office demanded the salaries for thousands of officials, including council members and executives in a variety of government agencies. The Times used the controller’s salary numbers for 2009 as a starting point, comparing them to city records as well as calculations of what each city’s maximum compensation should be. In cities that appeared to exceed the limits, The Times requested additional information.

In some cases, council members got a big spike in their pay because cities gave them the option to take cash instead of health benefits.

In the city of Chino, council members could opt to cash out their $26,000 annual health benefit or place it in a deferred compensation account rather than using it for health insurance.

Several council members placed the majority of that money in a deferred compensation account, to be saved for retirement or cashed out later. City spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden said that “benefit bank” has been reduced from $26,000 to $15,672, effective July 1.

In Baldwin Park, council members could take cash in lieu of their $14,400 yearly health allotment, and all but one did so in 2009. Councilwoman Marlen Garcia said she takes the cash because her day job provides health insurance. She defended the amount of the health allowance, saying that the stress of the council position has affected her health.

“I didn’t have high blood pressure when I first started,” she said.

Not all cities allowed council members to cash out their health contributions, but many offered generous health plans for the part-time positions. When health benefits were added to salaries and other forms of compensation, council members in 116 general law cities were above the maximum salary limit.

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