Nine out of 10 of the highest-paying county governments in the U.S. are in California -- the other is a wealthy New York suburb with an exceptionally high cost of living -- according to a Washington Examiner analysis of county employee compensation data.
In Alameda County, Calif., the San Francisco suburb whose county seat is Oakland, even the average sanitation and utility worker makes $90,000 a year, while in San Mateo County, the average first-responder makes $120,000.
When it comes to city governments, the nine highest payers are also all in the Golden State, including Oakland, at $99,000. The average government worker in Fremont makes $108,000; in San Jose, it's $100,000; in Los Angeles, it's $93,000 (Go here for the Examiner's analysis of city workforces.)
While working for California local governments can mean high salaries and extraordinarily generous pensions, the Examiner found that county workers made more than their private-sector counterparts virtually everywhere on the East Coast, the West Coast and the Rust Belt.
In Stearns County, Minn., the median full-time worker earns less than $40,000, but the average county employee makes $70,000. In Passaic County, N.J., residents make $42,000, while government workers make $67,000. In parts of the South, meanwhile, public servants make sacrifices to serve the public, making, for example, $30,000 on average in Boone County, Mo. while residents make $40,000.
High salaries for California's runaway public workforce will cause problems not just now, but down the line, as pensions are pegged to pay.
In Solano County, which ranks fifth on the Examiner's national list of average government salaries at $86,000, retiree Michael D. Johnson is drawing a pension of $371,000 every year, according to a review of CalPERS, the behemoth pension fund for government workers in the state, by the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility (CFFR).
The Examiner computed average county worker salaries from the Census Bureau's 2011 Government Employment & Payroll survey, and compared them with the median salaries of full-time workers in the same counties, from the Census' 2009-2011 tally, to account for cost of living differences. (Median salaries were not available from the government employees survey.) All counties with populations of 100,000 or more, and a sampling of smaller ones, were included. Teachers, because they aren't year-round employees, were excluded.
A self-reinforcing cyclone of raises pegged to pay increases in nearby localities, fueled by strong unions and enabled by a disengaged electorate, has made California the anomaly that it is, Marcia Fritz of CFFR said.
"They map salary and benefits to five other localities, and they tend to be the five high paying cities. You get your salary increase in one and the other will map to it, and it goes around and around."
She noted that while the salaries in the Examiner's analysis are high in themselves, they do not reflect the generous benefits and more time off compared to private workers.
Earlier this year, California enacted legislation to tighten pensions for new employees, but many loopholes remain, including allowing local workers to retire and begin collecting a pension, then resume working with the government for an additional salary.
Fritz said CalPERS, which operates much like a Wall Street hedge fund, believes its pensions take precedence over other government obligations if pensions overwhelm a county's finances.
CalPERS officials "feel they can garnish a tax flow, they can literally seize patrol cars to pay these pensions," she said.
Far from satiating them, high salaries in California have public employees repeatedly pushing the boundaries.
Workers on San Francisco's BART transit system who are represented by AFSCME had a median gross pay of $104,000, according to the Bay Area News Group. But last month the system, which recently raised fares, shut down as workers demanded a 23 percent raise, rejecting managers' offer of 8 percent.