A database which hosts the salaries of San Diego County employees has raised some questions about a controversial pay and pension process and whether providing the information should be seen as a violation of privacy in general.
On Tuesday local watchdog group, The Investigative News Source, released salary information and names of county employees through a database on their website.
The INS is an agency based out of San Diego State University that aims to provide in-depth and data-driven journalism to the public at large and their release means anyone can view the salary information of any San Diego county employee at the click of a mouse.
“We believe in giving the public the most information possible," said INS’ Editor and Director, Lorie Hearn. "People should be able to see where their tax money goes."
The public can gleam much from the numbers in INS' database including such information as District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis made $234,568 in 2010 or that the department of Child Support collectively took home more than $26 million.
The database also provides a list of county departments, with everything from the San Diego County Sheriff’s office to employees at the County Library listed.
Nearly 20,000 names of county employees, as well as a search function based solely on them, are featured on the site where users can search the county employee’s salary for vacation, sick and special pay, along with their regular and base pay.
Not only does the database feature employees who have worked within the county since 2007, it also provides the information of those who only worked for a brief period at a time, Hearn said.
The release isn’t the first for INS, which bought salary records for 2007 to 2009 from the county last year and posted them online. At that time the agency focused mainly on which employees in certain positions made the most money.
The county said the cost, totaling $980, went toward programming, though this year’s documents came free, Hearn added.
At the center of the salary database are two main issues, the first of which is the most basic: Is the releasing of county salary information considerate of the employees within the report?
It seems the answer is split down the middle with court rulings and precedents on one side and on the other the feelings of those whose salary information can now be found.
After their first database release last year INS saw a good amount of upset county employees, according to Hearn. “We got a number of calls and comments about how this was an invasion of their privacy,” said Hearn.
In 2010, their post “San Diego County Payroll” received more than 80 comments; many of which were from those in disagreement with the agency’s move to provide names with the salary information.
“How dare you use my name and my salary,” said one user, “My privacy has been invaded and I will be going to work demanding ANSWERS!!! (sic),” they added.
“I am a public employee and understand the need for transparency in government but this was going too far,” said another “…when you... violate the privacy of so many workers out there you are asking for a lot of trouble. What if one of these workers is trying to escape a stalker?”
Feelings and claims of invasion of privacy aside, the idea that releasing salary information is beneficial has been acted upon time and time again.
After all, according to INS’ Kevin Crowe, part of the reason why the agency felt comfortable to release the information was based on earlier outcries for better salary reporting resulting from scandals in cities such as Bell, Los Angeles.
Furthermore, it’s been common practice for local and state-wide agencies to post city, state and county positions, and their salary, on the web. The only main difference being that information may be posted on a year by year basis and does not include names.
Additionally, news organizations like the Sacramento Bee have maintained similar databases of the compensation and names of state employees, including those of university employee, for more than three years, according to INS.
In terms of legality, a 2007 ruling by the California Supreme Court determined the benefit to the public outweighed any concerns over privacy or embarrassment.
“Using names makes everything much more transparent,” said Lani Lutar, President and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.
Lutar argued that a database of names allowed the public to track which employees get what in terms of salary over a certain period of time.
In the end, even with some push-back, not all county employees view releasing salary information with names as harmful.
Among last year’s criticism, there were comments that supported the use of names.
Hearn said she heard positive feedback from one county employee who thanked her for putting up the information after they had been in a salary negotiation and was able to see what those above them made.
Being a data-driven agency, INS investigated into the salary figures and found what some see as a questionable process in employee compensation.
So called, “add-ons” or "special pay", a collection of special benefits that are put onto county employee salaries accounted for more than $100 million over the past four years, according to INS. This includes additions such as car and uniform allowances; some of which count toward retirement, said Crowe.
The additional compensation, or special pay, can go also toward hazardous assignments and being bilingual.
According to Crowe, though the number has dropped to $13 million in the past two years after due to economic constraints, add-on pay was as much as $43 million in 2007 and 2008.
“County employees often perform specialized or dangerous work,” said Eric Banks, President San Diego County Contract Bargaining 221 in a released statement, “the compensation they receive for these special skills or for working in hazardous environments, such as jails, ensures that the County is able to attract and retain the best and the brightest among us."
As the report points out, getting paid for those "special skills" can have a large benefit for some, "For an employee with 25 years of service and a high base salary of $65,000 at retirement, for example, $2,500 in special pay would boost the annual pension pay by about 4 percent, or $1,872 per year. That’s $37,440 over 20 years."
The issue isn’t so much the skills employees are getting paid for said Lutar, who did question how much those skills affect the jurisdiction in general; rather Lutar said it’s how visible the process is to taxpayers.
Whereas a general salary increase of a county employee is debated upon by locals and viewed in the media, according to Lutar these special pay add-ons can be approved on a much less transparent basis.
What may be a bigger issue here is that the add-ons can affect pensions, which Lutar said the state and taxpayers are already facing an uphill battle with. "We don't consider it necessary," said Lutar, especially given how already generous the pension process is."
For now though things will remain the same.
At the moment the county is not in the position to legally change the process of extra payments and add-ons, which would require new legislation to make happen.
Ed. Note: Lani Lutar's name was misspelled in a previous version of this article. We regret the error.