Top 1,000 city salaries dwarf area's average pay

192 municipal workers make $100K or more as road bond pends
2012-08-05T00:00:00Z 2012-08-06T11:12:08Z Top 1,000 city salaries dwarf area's average payDarren DaRonco and Rob O'Dell Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

If you feel a tad underpaid in your current job, you may want to consider dropping off an application at the city of Tucson or Pima County.

An Arizona Daily Star review of city salaries last year showed the 1,000th highest-paid employee earned $72,411, which is $37,000 more than the average Tucsonan.

Pima County paid its 1,000th top earner $63,258, about $28,000 more than the average resident pulls down.

Collectively, those top 1,000 city paychecks clock in at $89.4 million, excluding benefits and pensions. For the county, it was $85.3 million.

Tucson pays 192 employees $100,000 or more and spent $22.1 million total on those salaries, or roughly $2 million more than what the city is asking taxpayers to approve for a road repair bond in this November's bond election.

In comparison to similar communities in the region, the Star's analysis shows Tucson trends toward the high side in how much it pays its top workers. Only Mesa showed a higher figure for its 1,000th salaried employee, at nearly $78,000.

The city provided the Star with its own spreadsheet that showed its 1,000th highest-paid employee makes $50,939, but that list did not include any sworn police or fire officials. As with most municipalities, fire and police salaries make up a large portion of the highest-paid employees.

Of the five municipalities reviewed, Tucson spent the most for fire and police - it paid $39 million to 441 police officers and $22 million to 221 firefighters. Pima County paid $22 million for 291 law-enforcement personnel. The county does not offer fire services. The other cities paid between $31 million and $34 million for police and between $18 million and $22 million for fire.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said these numbers only represent the top quarter of Tucson employees. If you looked at similar positions around the country, the city's wages would be either comparable or lower, he said.

"If you compare like jobs to like jobs, such as attorney to attorney, engineer to engineer, in similar-sized cities and to the private sector, I think you will see that the employees are not overpaid," Rothschild said. "You are looking at a lot of advanced-degree personnel and senior staff, not the average employee."

In fact, he said, the city loses numerous highly skilled employees each year because it can't match what other cities can pay.

"We regularly lose employees to other cities around the state, to the county and to the private sector because those folks pay more," he said. "There are over 4,000 employees in the city, down over 20 percent from several years ago."

He said talented employees come at a price and those employees are integral to the quality of life in a city.

"I would not want to live in a place where the people responsible for my water, sanitation system, police, fire, and managing the finances of one of the largest organizations in the region are not competitively paid," Rothschild said.

Finance Director Kelly Gottschalk said comparing Tucson's pay scales to other cities does not accurately reflect the environment in which the city must compete with other companies for skilled employees.

She said companies like Raytheon, Tucson's health-care industry, the University of Arizona and others consistently lure city workers away with higher pay. She said the city needs to find a way to retain workers, since the work the city performs is vital to a healthy community.

"You just can't take a number and compare it," Gottschalk said. "We are a $1.3 billion corporation. The decisions we make affect people's lives both now and in the future. It's not OK in the environment we are in to start skimping on pay."

She said the top salaries of Tucson police officers are an example of how numbers can be misconstrued. Even though police make up a large part of the top 1,000 paid employees, a recent Arizona League of Cities and Towns survey showed Tucson police are among the lowest paid in the state, just above Yuma.

The city's human resources director, Lani Simmons, said the public needs to weigh in on what kind of services it wants to receive from the city and how much it is willing to pay for quality.

Simmons said most of the jobs that draw a top-1,000 paycheck require college degrees - and those jobs command higher salaries.

City Councilwoman Regina Romero said she was surprised by the figures and wonders if residents are getting a good return on their investment.

"For me, it's about are you doing your job well," Romero said. "It's about accountability."

She said it's time for City Manager Richard Miranda to take a look at how the city sets its compensation so workers on the lower end of the pay scale are not sacrificing so the top can continue to enjoy high salaries.

"If you are making that kind of money, you need to be accountable to the people of Tucson," she said. "I think the city of Tucson is due for a review of its compensation. We need to do a classification review because one hasn't been done since 2000."

Romero also worries if a well-paid workers protected by civil-service rules are interested in following instructions from poorly paid elected officials on the council.

"Problems occur when bureaucracy doesn't understand the relationship between them and the mayor and council," she said. "If our professionals are being paid well, they need to understand mayor and council set the rules and they have to comply with policy."

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said county salaries are aligned with salaries in similar fields.

"Given our range of professional services in law, courts and medical services where we employ a large number of attorneys, judges and medical professionals, the salary comparisons look reasonable," Huckelberry said in an email. "It should also be remembered county employees have not received a general salary increase for five years."

City Councilman Steve Kozachik said the high salaries could raise a red flag for voters this November.

"The message being sent to the taxpayers is that we can pay our workers several times the local median wage, and we also want your tax money to fix the roads. Much as I would like to see the road bonds pass, we just can't get out of our own way and keep making decisions that give people the right to question how we spend their tax money," Kozachik said.

Kozachik said he would like to see the money distributed a little more evenly, so workers on the bottom would see a little more pay each month.

"I voted 'no' on the salary increase because it disproportionately rewards the people at the top end of the salary scale, increases our structural deficit because they'll carry higher pensions into retirement, and ignores the fact that the front-line workers could have had a legitimate increase" if raises had been offered only to employees at the lower end of the pay scale, he said. "It's sort of a Marie Antoinette situation, the rich get richer and the rest can eat cake, if they can afford it."

Contact Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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