Over the years, we have advocated for various sales tax measures to help save vital services and programs in cities across the county. We have asked that the general public be more understanding of the struggles public entities and servants are experiencing as they continuously see their budgets slashed year afteryear. We have requested transparency from our officials and have sought a deeper knowledge of how local government spends our money and why. Most of all, we, as anyone would, desired that officials be culpable when things don’t look right.

In many ways, our requests have been answered and officials have been helpful and insightful. But when State Controller John Chiang recently released records of public employees’ pay in 2010, we were taken aback. It seems as though local government (and we are fairly certain this isn’t isolated in just Ventura County) wants more while sacrificing little or, at the very least, it isn’t in the business of reassessing payrolls to see where real cost-cutting measures could be made rather than cutting services and raising taxes. It’s not necessarily along the lines with the scandal in the city of Bell, but many things don’t seem to be passing the sniff test, especially at the top.

First, there is much ruckus regarding the pay of city managers. Oxnard City Manager Ed Sotelo is the highest-paid city manager in Ventura County. That would seem justified, as Oxnard has the largest population — his salary is $296,800 for a city of 200,004 people. But President Barack Obama’s salary is $400,000 for a country of 307 million. Sotelo gets paid nearly three-quarters of what our president makes. It seems rather high in comparison. But what about Ojai’s former city manager Jere Kersnar? He made $203,253; Ojai’s population is 8,226.

When looking at the pay of local firefighters and police officers, something seems to be amiss. In particular is the pay of a police sergeant in Oxnard who was paid $255,714 — that was around $150,000 more than what the base salary was. According to reports, city officials suspected it was due to overtime. It is rare to hear of private employees doubling, if not nearly tripling, their salaries due to overtime.

In scrutinizing average salaries, Port Hueneme police officers make the highest at $96,036 for a city population of 21,887; the lowest average was the city of Santa Paula — $65,775 for a city of 30,048. For firefighters, Ventura came out as the highest average at $105,836 for a city of 109,946; Santa Paula was the lowest at $71,694. The difference in pay from city to city is hard to understand and we are yet to figure out why average pay for firefighters is higher than law enforcement. Conversely, it also doesn’t seem all that rational that Fernando “Fernie” Estrella, former police chief of Port Hueneme, would be making more than Ken Corney, the current police chief of Ventura, or that a police lieutenant in Simi Valley would make as much as the former police chief.

(Average salary for law enforcement: county, $82,561; Oxnard, $80,957; Simi Valley, $88,818; Ventura, $79,801. Average salary for fire fighters: county, $97,715; Oxnard, $104,147; Fillmore is made up mostly of volunteers.)
For other positions, certain salaries raise some eyebrows, including Ventura’s Parks, Recreation and Community Partnerships Director Elena Brokaw, who makes $182,807, only $9,000 less than Ventura’s city manager, and Ojai’s Recreation Director Dale Sumersille, who makes $92,000.

The list is long of what appear to be bloated salaries of public employees across the county. We do understand the cost of living varies from city to city, but in most instances, each city has an assortment of housing to choose from. Just because a city may have the money doesn’t justify spending it.

While we aren’t going to pretend that we know how to run a municipality, we certainly question whether or not certain salaries are appropriate. We have heard the threat over and over that we must negotiate better salaries to attract and retain the best of the best or lose out. But is that to say the police officers of Port Hueneme are better than the ones in Santa Paula? We don’t think so.

This year, as our country struggles to get back into a better place financially, with many private employees hoping for better pay while willing to work for less, the time has come for our local cities to follow what the rest of us have been doing for the last several years. With full understanding that union contracts are binding and that we aren’t necessarily blaming employees for accepting these salaries, we beseech our elected officials, those who approve such salaries, to scrutinize their own payrolls and see what can be changed before making pleas to residents for more funding.