The City of Bell Sounds the Alarm for Us All

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Seal_Bell.jpgWhen the issue of the City of Bell first arose, it drew me in because, while the magnitude of the problem in Bell is far greater perhaps than elsewhere, it embodied a number of problems that every local community is struggling with.

One point I think that this illustrated to me, and I was not alone because I have had numerous people tell me this over the last week or two, is that the problem in Bell illustrates why we need local beat reporters.  Yesterday, this site celebrated its fourth anniversary of its founding on July 30, 2006.  I would like to believe at the very least we have made local government more cognizant of their actions.

But in a place like Davis that is perhaps easy.  We have an active citizenry that can support a cause like this one, either by reading or, in some cases, donating. We have laws that allow for the public disclosure of salaries and contracts.  But as Conor Friedersdorft points out in his essay, Why Every City Needs A Beat Reporter, in Forbes.com, the City of Bell had none of that going.  The people who lived in the town did not know about the high salaries because they never had a watchdog reporter or even a beat reporter covering city hall.

“It may be hard to believe, but had its residents banded together five years ago to hire a top-notch beat reporter, even paying him the handsome salary of $200,000 per year, the return on their value would’ve been immense,” Mr. Friedersdorft writes. 

“Until recently the city manager in Bell was being paid almost $800,000 per year in total compensation, or roughly twice as much as the president of the United States. The police chief made more than $400,000. Each member of the city council was being paid six figures. Over time, the citizens of Bell were bilked out of many millions of dollars paying city officials outlandish sums,” he continues.  “But no one knew!”

As we have pointed out, we have laws that require the government to disclose their salaries and other contracts.  However, if the citizens are busy working and there is no reporter investigating city hall, what good are the laws?.  Mr. Friedersdorft writes, “This despite the fact that California law makes salaries of all government employees a matter of public record. All anyone had to do was look at the paperwork on file at city hall–and any halfway decent beat reporter assigned to the city would’ve known to do exactly that as a matter of course.”

The article goes on to quote Kevin Roderick, founding editor of LA Observed, “We’ve heard of all this lately because of some good, solid reporting by the Los Angeles Times. The paper sent reporters in to see what was happening in Bell and hasn’t let up, running story after story and throwing fuel on a much-needed citizen uprising there.”

Mr. Roderick added, “But before you get all inspired and warm inside about a triumph of gutty journalism, think about this. The rip-off artists that run the city of Bell got away with their scheme this long largely because the LA Times reduced and finally abandoned its local coverage in cities like Bell.”

The question, as the Los Angeles Times, which must be doing chest thumps over the amount of air a story has garnered them, one that they had to think was relatively minor, is how many more Bells are out there?  Somewhere, bloggers and reporters are out scrambling to find out the answer to that question.

On Friday, the Sacramento Bee reported, “City administrators from around the state scrambled Thursday to get ahead of the unfolding salary scandal in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell.”

There is growing anger overall over salaries.  That itself is an issue we have covered at least since 2008.  The City of Davis does not have any salary above about $155,000, which is quite unusual.  The Bee has a chart of City Manager salaries.  It includes 18 cities and counties.  Davis is fourth lowest on that list.  Ten of the entities had top executives making over $200,000.  That includes West Sacramento at just over $200,000.  The City of Sacramento’s City Manager makes just over $210,000, Roseville is about $240,000 and Sacramento County CAO is making just under $300,000 while Yolo County’s is making just under $200,000.

As we know, salaries are not the end of the story.  What Davis lacks in pure salaries it makes up in benefits and retirement benefits.  The problems that cities like Davis face are not purely from compensation but rather from the lack of funding for very lucrative retirement benefits.  Thus the city’s PERS obligations and unfunded health benefit liabilities threaten, at the very least, severely to constrain future spending, if not produce worse problems down the line.

The Bee reported Friday that the Bell scandal is focusing attention and anger on city salaries and finances that have long been a problem, apparently just off the public’s radar.

“For city managers, it’s kind of like the Rodney King beating,” said Winters City Manager John Donlevy in the Bee article, who is on the League’s city manager executive committee. “It had to be one of the most reprehensible things done. City managers are charged with being the fiduciary of the public trust. Cities have to live within their means and I don’t care how good (they are), nobody should be paid close to a million dollars.”

“The scandal in the city of 37,000 comes at a vulnerable time for California cities. Trust in public officials has eroded, particularly when the discussion turns to those with high salaries. In addition, as cities and counties use layoffs and wage concessions to balance their budgets, labor unions are accusing public agencies of protecting bloated management staffs at the expense of the rank and file,” the Bee reported.

“And local officials, pleading poverty, have spent the last year complaining that the state is balancing its budget on their backs by taking redevelopment money and other funding,” the article continued.  “Complicating matters is the calendar: In just over three months, many local governments will ask voters to raise taxes and fees to bolster public services in the wake of cutbacks.”

Chris McKenzie, the executive director of the League of California Cities, told the Bee that Bell is merely one jurisdiction among thousands.  Maybe it is, but part of the problem here is that, while Bell is the extreme example, things were and have been moving in that direction.

The Bee quotes Santa Clarita’s city manager, wondering out loud how there were not questions asked long before the salary become $800,000.  The problem goes back to the break down of transparency.

But I do think that cities are in a bit of denial that their policies contributed to the problems.  What seems to have happened is that the city manager was in place for a long time, and had an automatic escalator clause in his contract.  That means each year, he got a 12% raise and his underlings likewise got raises themselves. 

12% is obviously an extreme example, but we have seen is an arms race.  Cities are competing against each other and salaries have exploded in every jurisdiction in the last decade.  We need to figure out what a good sustainable level is for government salaries ,whether they be city, county, state, or federal.  We need to look at pensions and other benefits as well. 

We have gotten out of whack everywhere, Bell is simply the elephant that no one could ignore.  Cities can look at Bell and take solace that their own salaries by comparison are not so bad.  But maybe that is the problem and how we got Bell in the first place.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 thoughts on “The City of Bell Sounds the Alarm for Us All”

  1. SODA

    Your point this morning was emphasized that night in the Enterprise article about fire dept merger and the total compensation of assistant chiefs etc at 190,000. For as long as I can remember the comparison if salaries to other cities is brought up every time there is a major hire. That perpetuates the escalation.

  2. Dr. Wu

    Bell is getting all the publicity now but nearby Vallejo may be the place to watch. As these cities go into some form of bankruptcy salaries and pensions will have to be reduced, but how that happens is far from clear.

    I recently returned from southern California and a couple of things struck me:

    1. The entire City of LA is in decline–this may not be a revelation for some but the physical decay in many parts of LA is startling.

    2. In affluent areas of SoCal (e.g., Orange County) the antipathy for public employees unions and gov’t workers in general is striking. There is a real social movement brewing here. Unfortunately some opportunistic people like Sarah are tapping into this, but many of the grievances are legitimate, as exemplified by Bell.

  3. Bob Aaronson

    Greed is contrary to the principals and ethics of public service. If each of us insists on caviar, some of us won’t get any food at all.

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