MODESTO — Despite a lingering recession, the number of Modesto city employees earning $100,000 or more grew by 22 percent from 2009 to 2012, with police officers and firefighters making up 86 percent of the high earners.
The city had 201 employees who earned at least $100,000 last year; 104 were firefighters and 68 were police officers. Public safety workers dominated the list because of their overtime pay.
For instance, eight of the city's 15 highest-paid employees were fire captains or fire engineers. A fire engineer who made $171,708 made the most among the eight. The engineer's base pay was $83,173. The rest came through such compensation as overtime and a $16,620 payment for health insurance, which is a common payment for firefighters.
A police officer was the city's 16th highest-paid employee and second-highest paid cop, behind former Police Chief Mike Harden. The officer earned $153,361, with about half of that coming from overtime.
The Bee last looked at public employee pay for 2009. At that time, Modesto had 165 employees who earned $100,000 or more, with police and fire making up 85 percent of those workers.
The number of high earners grew while the city reduced its work force, from 1,363 employees in July 2008 to 1,142 today. About 18 percent of city workers made $100,000 or more last year.
City Manager Greg Nyhoff said budget cuts to public safety is one of the primary reasons for more police officers and firefighters earning the overtime that spiked total compensation. Modesto has about 20 percent fewer police officers and firefighters than it did about four years ago, but they are responding to more calls for service today.
"What drove that is there are fewer people in police and fire," Nyhoff said. "That's a big part of what you are seeing."
$2.6 million in OT
Modesto is on track to spend about $2.6 million in police and fire overtime in its current fiscal year, which ends June 30. And it spent nearly $4.4 million in the previous fiscal year.
City officials pay attention to overtime. While it can be cheaper to use overtime than hiring more full-time workers because of the cost of health insurance and other benefits for new employees, officials are concerned about burning out workers.
"I'd rather not have people working the overtime they are working," Nyhoff said. "I'd much rather have more people at regular pay. The issue is we've had a hard time recruiting, and we been through the Great Recession."
City finances have stabilized but are many years away from recovering to pre-recession levels. Modesto's general fund, which primarily pays for police and fire, lost roughly $20 million in the economic downturn and now stands at about $100 million.
Police and fire are working to fill vacancies. There are about nine trainees either in or soon to be in the police academy; the department also expects to hire two or three officers from other agencies. The Modesto Regional Fire Authority is recruiting candidates to fill six vacancies.
Other than a recent federal grant that allowed the fire agency to plug nine vacancies for two years, Fire Chief Gary Hinshaw said the current recruitment is the first time in years the department has been able to seek new hires.
"We've been through a long dry spell," he said.
But city officials stress Modesto does not have the money to bring public safety staffing back to pre-recession levels.
Pay increases also contributed to police and fire earnings.
Members of the Modesto Police Officers Association, which represents about 190 officers and detectives, have seen their pay increase 17 percent since January 2008, according to the city's human resource department.
Members of the Modesto City FireFighters Association have had their pay rise 12 percent since January 2008, and they are scheduled to receive a 2.5 percent raise in July, according to human resources.
With the exception of members of the Modesto City Employees Association who in February received a 1.5 percent raise, their first pay increase in about 4½ years no other non-public-safety employees have received raises in recent years. But members of the Modesto Confidential and Management Association will receive a 1.5 percent raise in July.
It was a much different time when the city approved the public safety labor deals that included these raises. The recession had not hit and the city OK'd the raises after surveys showed Modesto was underpaying its police and fire compared with comparable cities.
When the recession got really bad, police officers and firefighters deferred some of their raises.
"We firefighters were with the city the entire time working through the financial crisis," Modesto City FireFighters Association President Tim Tietjen said. " We were the first employee group to come to them and talk to them about our contract because of what we saw happening with the economy."
Modesto Police Officers Association President Tony Argüelles did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Sheriff's Department, too
The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department also has seen a spike in the number of deputies on the $100,000 list.
In 2009, the county had 216 employees earning $100,000 or more; three were deputies and two were sheriff's sergeants. In 2012, the county had 198 employees on the list; 21 were sheriff's deputies or sergeants.
Sheriff Adam Christianson said his department has lost about 60 deputies in four years because of budget cuts. At the same time, the department's overtime budget has soared, from $2.9 million to a projected $5.3 million for the current fiscal year.
Christianson said every sworn officer in the department, including the correctional deputies working in the jails, is mandated to work a minimum of two overtime shifts a month. For patrol deputies, that works out to at least two extra 12-hour shifts.
As in 2009, the 2012 county list is dominated by high-skilled workers, such as doctors, department managers and attorneys who work for the county counsel's office or for the district attorney's office. Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Medical Director Uday Mukherjee was the county's highest-paid employee, earning $280,724 last year. Forensic pathologist Sung-Ook Baik was the county's second-highest at $266,251.
Like the city, the county also saw a drop in employees, from 3,988 in February 2009 to 3,413 as of last month. That's one reason why the number of high earners has fallen, said Nancy Bronstein, deputy executive officer for human resources. She said the other reason is the recent 6 percent salary reduction for all county employees, which was rolled out last year as a cost-savings measure.
Little change elsewhere
Other Stanislaus County cities did not see much change from 2009 to 2012 in the number of high earners.
For instance, Ceres had 33 workers earning $100,000 or more in 2009 versus 34 in 2012. In Riverbank, the number on the list fell by two, from seven in 2009 to five in 2012.
But Turlock rose from 12 workers in 2009 to 20 in 2012, with the increase caused by more police officers and firefighters whose earnings were boosted by overtime.
One thing these smaller cities share with Modesto is that police and fire dominate their lists of high earners.
In Ceres, firefighters and police officers make up 28 of that city's 34 employees who earned $100,000 or more last year. Many made the list because of their overtime pay. Four of Patterson's eight top earners were fire captains, who had a combined $188,000 in overtime pay last year.
Official says it's not unexpected for public safety workers to make the list of top earners. Police officers and firefighters are in a 24-7 business and overtime comes with job.
Firefighter overtime can be affected by the wildfire season and the need for multiple agencies to respond to a blaze. Hinshaw, Modesto Regional's fire chief, said his firefighters logged about 4,900 hours of overtime last year battling wildfires throughout California. The state reimbursed the fire authority the $354,000 in overtime costs.
Tietjen, the firefighters union president, said Modesto firefighters work two 24-hour shifts and then have four days off. But firefighters on overtime can work as many as four consecutive 24-hour shifts before taking two days off.
"People look at a firefighter or captain making $170,000," he said, "but 15 to 20 days a month he is gone from his home and family. The guys have to work the hours to get the money. They aren't working 40 hours a week to get that money. They are working 96 hours to get that money."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.
HEADS OF THE CLASS
A survey of Modesto City Schools' top earners shows continued erosion of top salaries through the recession. Compared with Turlock Unified, Stanislaus County's second-largest district, Modesto City spent more on teacher pay but less, on average, for administration.
MODESTO CITY SCHOOLS: In 2012 there were 77 staffers topping $100,000 in earnings, down from 95 in 2011 and 177 in 2009. The district has 34 campuses serving 29,900 students.
TURLOCK UNIFIED: In 2012, there were 45 employees who made more than $100,000. The district has 15 campuses serving 13,700 students.
TEACHERS: In the Modesto district, 24 teachers were on the list, averaging $87,651 in base salary and $16,224 in extra pay for coaching teams, advising clubs and other duties. Those do not count the $116,000 earned by Randy Fillpot, who was a district administrator for the first half of the year. In Turlock, six teachers made the list, with a base salary averaging $82,240 and an average of $20,416 in extra pay.
PRINCIPALS: Modesto's list notes 26 principals, averaging $108,783. Turlock had 14 principals on its list, averaging $112,030.
DISTRICT ADMINISTRATORS: Modesto Superintendent Pam Able was the highest-paid employee at $230,855. Modesto had 19 other administrators make the list, averaging $115,575. Turlock Superintendent Sonny Da Marto earned $190,567. Turlock had 10 other administrators make its list, averaging $118,112 each. Comparing administrative overhead, Modesto City spent $81 per child on district administrators and Turlock Unified spent $86.
Compiled by Bee reporters Nan Austin and Marijke Rowland from databases supplied by Modesto City Schools and Turlock Unified School District records.