Do Our Five Monarchs (not including Meghan & Harry) Earn Too Little?

By Jeff Giordano   |   July 2, 2024

I often rage about the fact that our County spending continues to increase (this year by 7.3%), while our population slowly decreases. So, yes, it’s difficult for a devout fiscal hawk to write about salaries that might be depressed, yet in a county that employs 4,763 people there may actually be five individuals – just five – that are in fact underpaid. Allow me to explain:

Much has been written about inflated public sector salaries. Often cited is the fact that CA government salaries and benefits are, on average, significantly greater than they are in the private sector. Dig more deeply, however, and you’ll find that executive pay still remains at least slightly higher in the private sector. So, what is it that drives the government salary average up? Simple – for those jobs requiring a high school degree or “some” college, government jobs pay significantly more. 

For those of us who worked in government at a time when it barely paid a living wage it’s tough to understand the realities of today – so allow me to lay it out: JFK’s Executive Order and Nixon’s Civil Service Act (how’s that for party neutrality) changed the game by allowing public employees to unionize. This, together with civil service tenure (and ever shorter probationary periods), makes personnel-related cuts difficult. It’s why government MUST hire slow and fire fast! Anyway, let’s not pine for the days when your reward for public service was the service itself because those days are LONG gone. 

Now, let’s talk about our five elected non-unionized Supervisors who outside of our eight county cities oversee just about everything in our unincorporated towns including, of course, Montecito, Summerland, and the unincorporated areas of Carpinteria. Nearly 140,000 residents live in these areas without a city council or mayor to lean on, i.e., it’s all about “their” Supervisor. So, how much do the five most powerful elected officials in the county earn? Well, let me tell you: Not nearly enough. 

The average pay of all other elected officials (e.g., County Clerk, Joe Holland; Auditor Controller, Betsy Schaffer; Sheriff, Bill Brown, etc.) is 2.2X greater than our Supervisors. In fact, their own painfully thin senior staff can make as much as 24% more than the Supervisor’s own $111,800 salary. And, as it relates to other executives including our Assistant CEOs, they make nearly 2X more, on average. These are folks who ultimately report to the Board of Supervisors, as do 25 other County Departments and Department Heads. Indeed, the current rate of Supervisor pay makes them eligible for low-income housing. FUN FACT: When looking at total compensation my guesstimate is that more than 2,400 county employees earn more than our Supervisors who as executives are not, rightfully,
entitled to overtime.

Other counties have tried to diffuse the politics of Supervisor pay by tethering their compensation to State Judicial salaries. Some have engaged citizen review panels to take a look. And, certainly, there are details to discuss including their ability to do outside work and comparative compensation levels. Monterey with 5,019 employees, for example, pays approximately 40% more to their Supervisors.

Any compensation discussion should also include the idea of staff. There is simply no way that anyone can effectively manage an 800 page $1.6B budget, 26 departments and 4,763 employees with a staff of basically two people. Other departments have deep staff talent (probably too deep!) but not the Supervisors. Silly. 

We need to attract engaged, smart, qualified and full-time elected officials. MY HOPE: Let’s start a conversation. MY DREAM: That we could choose which Supervisor(s) gets a bump in pay based on their Tuesday votes. But, alas, we’re not yet at a place where bonus pay can be tied to the whims of the MJ… 


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