The town of Corte Madera, CA, makes up for what it lacks in size and population, roughly 4 square miles with 9,425 residents, in its exorbitant government compensation packages. City government has approximately 43 full time employees with the average compensation package coming in at over $170,000.

That means every man, woman and child in Corte Madera pays $778.41 to fund just 43 positions.

A disproportionate number of these employees are firefighters. Amazingly, it’s routine for fire chiefs in California to earn well over $275,000 in total compensation. For instance, the fire chief in nearby San Rafael, population 57,713, earned $294,119.45 in 2012 total compensation, but it is quite surprising to see that such a small town employs three Battalion Chiefs with compensation packages around $294,000, $293,000, and $275,000. Then there’s the Director of Emergency Services who raked in over $313,000 in compensation in 2012.

This is just some of the information that is now available on TransparentCalifornia.com, a database of over 2 million public employee records that is searchable by name, job title and jurisdiction. Transparent California is provided by the California Public Policy Center as a public service and allows citizens to find out what public employees actual make, not what they or others claim they make.

Inflated compensation packages in Corte Madera don’t just come from high salaries, but from tens of thousands of dollars in benefits that are often hidden from the public eye. In Corte Madera, several city employees received health insurance policies that cost the government $20,894 a piece. This is hardly an isolated incident. In the Contra Costa Community College School District, over 150 employees are receiving medical plans that cost over $25,000 a year. The school district’s highest priced plans top out at over $29,000 a year!

This hurts taxpayers in two ways. The first is obvious — funding for $20,000+ premiums are ultimately paid for by taxpayers, some of whom don’t even have any healthcare of their own.

The second effect is more subtle, but well worth noting. The government’s systemic overpaying for health insurance, for a conservative estimate of well over 1 million California employees, results in raising the price of health insurance higher than it would have been otherwise.

As Dr. Thomas E. Woods documented in his book, Rollback, the artificially inflated cost of a good not only makes consumers, on the margin, less likely to purchase as much health-care coverage as they otherwise would have, but the less-price conscientious government purchaser acts like a de facto subsidy for insurance companies. This reduces the need for the producer to compete in normal market-based ways — improving the quality of the product offered and/or lowering the price. This means that the quality of health insurance that presently exists is of a lower quality than it would be without Corte Madera and many other government agencies purchasing $25,000 insurance plans.

This phenomenon is similar to how increasing the demand for higher education through federal aid and student loans has precipitated a dramatic increase in tuition over the last several decades.

Just as college tuition’s dramatic increase in price would grind to a screeching halt if consumers had to bear the full cost — by eliminating federal aid and government loans — the same principle applies to health insurance.

If government workers had to pay the full or partial cost of their health insurance or could choose between a $15,000 plan and $10,000 in additional salary or a $25,000 health plan, the demand for these high-priced plans would drop, thus putting downward pressure on the industry as a whole, This would create additional incentives for insurance companies to offer more competitively priced plans, and the price of health insurance would decrease for all as governments spent less on health insurance.

What Transparent California reveals is that taxpayers pay twice — initially by paying for the public employee’s compensation and again when they or their employer goes out to buy health insurance and find that the price has been artificially inflated.

Robert Fellner is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) and joined the Institute in December 2013. Robert is currently working on the largest privately funded state and local government payroll and pensions records project in California history, TransparentCalifornia, a joint venture of the California Public Policy Center and NPRI. Robert has lived in Las Vegas since 2005 when he moved to Nevada to become a professional poker player. Robert has had a remarkably successfully poker career including two top 10 World Series of Poker finishes. Additionally, his economic analysis on the minimum wage law won first place in a 2011 essay contest hosted by the George Mason University.

11 Responses to $170,000+ Average Pay & Benefits for Full-time Employees of Small California Town

  1. Richard Rider says:

    As I see it, “battalion chief” essentially is a highly-paid, largely ceremonial position that lucky firefighters rotate though in order to retire with a much higher pension. But let’s pretend these drones are a necessary component of firefighting.

    To give some perspective to this Corte Madera story, consider this:

    Here’s a town of 9,425 residents that has THREE “battalion chiefs.” My city of San Diego has a featherbed situation where we have an unnecessarily high 16 battalion chiefs (last time I looked) — for a city of over 1,326,000 people.

    Stated differently, if we followed this badly mismanaged Corte Madera policy, San Diego would have not 16 but rather 422 battalion chiefs. Oh my!

  2. Douglas47 says:

    this “Small California town” is NOT Mayberry.

    According to at least one cost of living index, a $100,000 income in Corte Madera is roughly equivalent to a $63,000 income in San Diego.

    The median home price is just shy of a million bucks.

    • Robert says:

      Douglas, you are correct about the affluence and higher cost of living in Corte Madera.

      It looks like the median income is a bit over $100,000.

      Which would put the average full-time government employee’s compensation at roughly 70% greater than the household median income for the townspeople they serve.

    • Richard Rider says:

      Douglas47 is playing fast and loose with Corte Madera’s level of affluence.

      The median household income of Corte Madera is $91,753. And note that “household income” is NOT just a person’s salary from one job. It’s the TOTAL income of a household — total earned income of all residents plus investment income. Many if not most upper middle class families are double income families.

      While above the CA average, $92K is hardly wild affluence. My upper middle income subdivision of Scripps Ranch (within San Diego) has a significantly higher median household income — about $144K.

      Douglas47 is TECHNICALLY right about Corte Madera average home prices being “just shy of a million dollars.” The median value of a Corte Madera home is $755,953. I guess it’s all in how one defines “just shy of.” Right, Doug?
      ——–
      NOTE: I have three URL’s as authenticating sources, but this blog won’t let me put them in this message. Sorry.

  3. Richard Rider says:

    Douglas47 — Two points to consider:

    1. Higher affluence does not justify THREE battalion chiefs for a town of 9,425. That’s just bad management at ANY income level.

    2. Odds are, not a SINGLE firefighter lives in Corte Madera (well, maybe the fire chief). Firefighters choose to buy in less expensive rural areas — for the the simple reason that, no matter how much they earn, they can buy a bigger, more luxurious house away from a city or town. And they can handle the longer commute because they drive to work perhaps 7 times a month (doing some back-to-back shifts).

    MOST San Diego firefighters live outside San Diego. In neighboring Poway, most live outside the COUNTY (which is surprisingly common).

    • Tough Love says:

      Richard, It’s far more than just “bad management”.

      The Unions, the pension recipients and those granting these pensions are all acting in self-interested collusion, with some benefiting in $$$ (excessive pay, pensions, and benefits) and others buying guaranteed votes and election support.

      • Richard Rider says:

        Right you are! Moreover, it’s likely that quite a number of the town’s firefighters cycle through one of the three “battalion chief” slots, boosting their pension dramatically.

  4. Bob B says:

    the size of the Corte Madera Fire Department is the result of a decision to provide quality paramedic service to the town but the cost has been more personnel than would be justified for a town of 10,000. Corte Madera is in the geographically defined Ross Valley which has a population of 80,000+ with several other local fire departments. There is a push to consolidate the fire services of the Ross Valley and thus go from four fire chiefs and 10+ battalion chiefs to one chief and 3-4 battalion chiefs. Proponents of local control have been slow to recognize the cost associated with stand alone fire/paramedic services but recognize that something has to change. This does not address the issue of compensation but would make fire/paramedic services more cost effective in the community.

  5. Richard Rider says:

    Douglas47 is playing fast and loose with Corte Madera’s level of affluence.

    The median household income of Corte Madera is $91,753. And note that “household income” is NOT just a person’s salary from one job. It’s the TOTAL income of a household — total earned income of all residents plus investment income. Many if not most upper middle class families are double income families.
    http://www.city-data.com/city/Corte-Madera-California.html

    While above the CA average, $92K is hardly wild affluence. My upper middle income subdivision of Scripps Ranch (within San Diego) has a significantly higher median household income — about $144K.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scripps_Ranch,_San_Diego

    Douglas47 is TECHNICALLY right about Corte Madera average home prices being “just shy of a million dollars.” The median value of a Corte Madera home is $755,953. I guess it’s all in how one defines “just shy of.” Right, Doug?

  6. dangerous dan says:

    There are three battalion chiefs because there are three shifts, each working different days. Its been that way since the beginning of time. The Batt chief is in charge of everything going on when his shift is working. If the pay thing bothers you, live in corte madera and get on the city council, to change things. Otherwise shut up.

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