City Life: Sticker shock found in city payroll

March 07, 2011|By Steve Smith

Most of the focus on Costa Mesa's budget cuts has been on the police and fire services. This is to be expected, for these are the two most important city services.

But a closer look at the city's payroll reveals many surprising compensation packages, the type that local governments are only too happy to provide with taxpayer dollars when times are good.

How'd you like to be a "Messenger" for the city earning $64,559 in compensation, $52,920 of which is your actual salary?


An online check through for Costa Mesa ZIP code 92626 revealed this job description for messenger:

"Picks up and delivers packages. May also be expected to distribute and route mail and packages. Requires a high school diploma or its equivalent with 0-2 years of experience in the field or in a related area.

"Has knowledge of commonly-used concepts, practices and procedures within a particular field. Relies on instructions and pre-established guidelines to perform the functions of the job. Works under immediate supervision. Primary job functions do not typically require exercising independent judgment. Typically reports to a supervisor or manager."

So with absolutely no prior experience, and just a high school diploma, you can earn more wages than the average salary of a "beginning teacher" category at one of the local schools.

Nice work — available only in the government.

Bureaucracies are good at misdirection. This misdirection includes flowery descriptions of otherwise mundane jobs. A file clerk becomes a "specialist." Someone who works in the records department for the city becomes a "technician."

And when you've reached your peak in city government, you often get a raise, regardless of your job performance because your union has negotiated that for you. To justify that additional compensation, the city adds a "II" to your title, as in the "Office Specialist II," who earns $54,860 in salary and $67,266 in total compensation.

So just what is an "Office Specialist?" According the University of Phoenix, which trains to this position and helps graduates find jobs in this category, an office specialist "… completes time-consuming, routine tasks to make the executives they work for free to handle other matters. Administrative office specialists organize meetings, handle filing, prepare sales data or other reports, manage projects, answer phone calls and emails and operate equipment such as scanners, fax machines and copiers."

But wait, there's more. According to, the average annual salary in December 2009 for an administrative office specialist averaged $45,000.

And who is willing to bet that since December 2009, thanks to the recession, the average private sector salary for an office specialist has remained the same or even gone down, while the government version salary has gone up?

Any takers?

The Costa Mesa City Council is doing what Gov. Jerry Brown and other local governments are doing all over the country: They are trying to right the topsy-turvy world of public-employee compensation and have stopped kicking the problem down the road.

They deserve our support for doing what should have been done years ago. Besides, we may just find that the new outsourced services are not only cheaper, they are better.

And if they're not, none of this is set in stone. We can always go back and restore the status quo.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send column ideas to

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