The debate over skyrocketing government-worker salaries got nasty in El Segundo when a homeowner published the six-figure salaries flowing to the small town's cops and firefighters on his Gundo Blogger website — only to have a police captain track him down by phone at his UCLA job and chew him out.
The uneasy homeowner, David Burns, tells L.A. Weekly that Capt. Robert Turnbull “called me from his office to complain about my blog. … He insisted on talking about it right now. I finally had to hang up on him.”
Burns then sent Turnbull an e-mail explaining his policy of separating his blog from his job as manager of emergency preparedness at UCLA.
In a response that would have unnerved many citizens, the high-ranking cop e-mailed Burns back: “I will continue to call you at work whenever I want, as you may do the same for me, since our numbers are publicly listed.”
Turnbull vehemently objected to Burns claiming on his blog that the captain's total pay is $302,000, insisting it should be “only” $225,000 — the amount the city defines as Turnbull's “total earnings.”
But as Burns explains, he included “the hidden costs. [Turnbull] was trying to exclude all the extra money and special benefits beyond his base salary, but that all comes from the taxpayer's pocket.”
Either way, it's a staggering sum to pay a police captain in a tiny city of 16,000 residents, with zero murders in 2009, according to FBI data — and only 36 violent crimes. By contrast, not counting benefits, the Los Angeles Police Department pays its captains an average of $168,000.
After the exchange of testy e-mails, Burns put the unsettling incident aside. But a month later he received a notification that Turnbull had filed a California Public Records Act request to see the details of Burns' salary and benefits at UCLA's Emergency Management Office.
“He was trying to harass and intimidate me, make trouble for me,” Burns says. “This is a powerful guy who wears a gun and a badge in the town where I live.”
Turnbull denies he was harassing Burns, saying: “If I was, I would have called him right back.” He argues, “I was just exercising my rights as a citizen. He talks the talk on salary cuts, so I wanted to see if he walks the walk.”
After the incident, Burns pointedly wrote on his Gundo Blogger site: “I don't make over $100,000 annually. … Since 2007, my salary has been reduced annually and frozen. … To date, the cuts equal nearly 23 percent overall. … No whining, no bitching, no moaning. I would welcome the El Segundo Safety Associations to follow suit.”
Burns became a target because he published stunning El Segundo city salary data obtained by another civic critic, Mike Robbins, who filed a California Public Records Act request and got his hands on a treasure trove of city documents.
The two men discovered that 78 percent of the town's 262 full-time employees will be handed more than $100,000 apiece in total compensation in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
El Segundo is a 1950s-style suburban gem with row upon row of Craftsman bungalows tucked between noisy LAX to the north and tony Manhattan Beach to the south. The nonresidential half of town is heavy on tech, industry and military. Municipal challenges are few; city government jobs are not hard. There's no clear reason for anyone to earn anything but small-town government incomes.
Yet thanks to a voting majority made up of three of the five City Council members — Mayor Eric Busch, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Fisher and Councilman Carl Jacobson — El Segundo taxpayers, not unlike the now-bankrupt city of Vallejo, are paying Cadillac salaries to cops, firefighters and other workers.
El Segundo is nearly broke. Last week — two years after the City Council, amidst the deep recession, handed city employees a series of fat raises — the council tapped out the last few cents from its reserve funds.
“We're Mayberry-by-the-Sea,” Burns says. “We can't afford these crazy salaries and pensions.”
Recently departed Police Chief David Cummings hauled in $425,000 last year, including a $200,000 “leave buyout” that almost doubled his final year's take. Cummings was hired for six months as an El Segundo contract employee, even while starting to draw his $210,000 pension.
“Chief Cummings' real take last year was north of $525,000,” Councilman Don Brann, the only El Segundo council member who called for fiscal sanity, tells the Weekly. Cummings did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
The Weekly has learned that 23 city employees are being paid more than $250,000 in total compensation this fiscal year, while nine get more than $300,000 and four get more than $350,000.
In December 2008 and April 2009, the City Council handed big raises to police and firefighters. They also included concessions purportedly aimed at saving money over the longer term. Brann predicted dire consequences, but lost every vote 4-1. (A fifth council member, Suzanne Fuentes, was not on the council then and did not participate in those votes.)
“I warned them it was fiscally irresponsible,” Brann says. “Now we've got a real mess on our hands.”
It appears that few city employees are being paid normal wages. Today, El Segundo sworn firefighters average $210,000 in salaries and benefits. But they handle only a few structure fires each year, mostly responding to lower-level paramedic calls — not a $210,000 firefighting job by any measure.
Similarly, the town's police officers average $175,000 in total compensation — far beyond normal cop pay in California — but see so little action that their biggest recent case involved a flasher who harassed girls.
Burns' father was a cop, as was his uncle. He has worked with police and firefighters throughout his 20-year civilian career in emergency services.
“I respect public-safety guys individually,” he says. “But together they've become a too-powerful political force that is damaging our city.”
The simmering salary debate escalated this summer with a smart bomb launched by Robbins, a former councilman–turned–gadfly who filed a public-records request and got documents showing the total compensation of all city employees — by name. He posted the explosive data at his blog, publicsafetyproject.org.
A few weeks later the Los Angeles Times broke its blockbuster corruption story about the city of Bell. After that, El Segundo City Council, which boasts about the town's free trash pickup — a heavy tax burden is borne by oil giant Chevron and aerospace megacorporations — was beset with demands for spending cutbacks and union concessions.
“The taxpayers of El Segundo can't afford these bloated compensation packages handed out to police and fire,” says Robbins, a software engineer. “It's unsustainable.”
In the last decade, Robbins said, El Segundo has become a small-scale model of the type of government takeover by public unions that is happening all over California. He urged taxpayers to connect the dots.
“Police and fire unions have become major political forces by endorsing and funding their preferred candidates,” Robbins says. “When those candidates get [onto city councils] they are beholden to the unions. It's big city–style politics.”
Last week, the council approved a budget for the 2010 fiscal year that began October 1. The council achieved it by draining the $3.6 million city reserves, which temporarily balanced the $55.5 million General Fund.
Mayor Busch, who was endorsed by the police and fire department unions — and then voted to approve their raises — insists, “I would do the same thing again.” He calls it “fiscally responsible for the long term.”
Brann, who wasn't endorsed by the police or firefighters, strongly disagrees: “All the budget trend lines were moving in the wrong direction. But who wants to fight the police and firefighters?”
Especially when a high-ranking cop thinks it appropriate to find your place of work, check out your salary and give you a tongue-lashing if you dare to expose the $302,000 in pay and bennies he gets to police a tiny city where, until now, little ever happened.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.