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City of Stanton Proposes Higher Taxes Instead of Cutting Pay and Benefits

On November 4th, voters in Stanton, California, will be asked to vote on a 1.0% sales tax increase, which if approved will raise their sales tax to 9.0% – the highest in Orange County. Nestled in the heart of Orange County, tiny Stanton, a city of barely three square miles in size with a population in 2012 of 38,915 residents, is an unlikely candidate for the spotlight, when California’s local ballots are about to be inundated with over 140 local tax increases affecting many cities and counties that are ten times bigger. But Stanton is ground zero in a battle over how to manage municipal budget deficits, because if their voters approve this tax increase, cities throughout Orange County will follow suit.

We’re not talking small potatoes here. Stanton currently only retains 1.0% (one-eighth) of the 8.0% sales tax they currently collect. According to Stanton’s Consolidated Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year ended 6-30-2013 (page 9), their total sales tax revenue for that year was $3,683,199. If they increase their sales tax rate from 8.0% to 9.0%, they should double the amount of sales tax collections retained by the city. A spokesperson for the city of Stanton confirmed they project the new sales tax will add $3.1 million to their projected annual sales tax revenues. How does that compare to their spending?

According to Stanton’s “Measure GG,” the city “now faces a $1.8 million structural budget deficit.” This means the sales tax increase is expected to eliminate their budget deficit with $1.3 million left over. But if you evaluate Stanton’s expenditures, there is an alternative to new taxes. How does the city spend most of their money?

To answer this, again, look no further than the “Whereas” section of Measure GG. The third “Whereas” states “public safety is a top priority in Stanton and represents over 70% of the City’s General Fund budget, and without a local funding source the City will be forced to significantly cut public safety services.”

It’s quite clear that Stanton has already cut everything else. Based on information reported to the California State Controller’s Office, in 2012, the City of Stanton had 26 full-time non-safety personnel. Their average base pay was $74,146 per year, with negligible overtime, and “lump sum” payments averaging $4,700 per year, mostly to management. The lowest full-time regular rate of base pay was $42,359 for an administrative clerk. When you pile on the employer payments for retirement health care (average per year $8,691) and for their 2% at 55 pensions (average per year $15,693), the total pay and benefits for Stanton’s 26 non-safety employees in 2012 averaged $104,990. Nice work if you can get it. But it represents less than 18% of Stanton’s estimated direct personnel costs.

Finding information as to just how much Stanton pays for police and fire protection is not easy, but a reasonably accurate estimate is possible. According to Stanton’s city website under “Fire Services, we learn “there are a total of 21 firefighters who serve the City of Stanton.” Under “Police Services,” we learn “the Sheriff’s Department provides 44 staff members to the City of Stanton.” If we make just one assumption – that the rates of pay earned by the sheriffs and firefighters assigned to Stanton are representative of the rates of pay earned by all Orange County sheriffs and firefighters, we can estimate how much Stanton incurs in direct personnel costs for public safety. Pay for Orange County sheriffs can be found using 2012 data reported by Orange County to the CA State Controller. Pay for Orange County firefighters can be found from 2013 data recently obtained by the California Policy Center directly from the Orange County Fire Authority. Here goes:

Orange County Public Safety – Average Compensation

20141007_OC-public-safety-comp

Based on the data and assumptions as noted, on average, Stanton’s 21 firefighters earn a direct pay and benefits package of $217,956 per year; Stanton’s 44 sheriffs earn an average direct pay and benefits package of $186,682 per year. The source data used for these calculations and others cited in this post can be downloaded here “Stanton_2014_Statistics.xlsx” and readers are invited to point out any errors in calculations or reasoning therein.

There are a lot of takeaways here. For example, if Stanton were to join with other Orange County cities who contract for their police and fire protection and negotiate a 14% decrease to the average total pay and benefits their police and firefighters earn, they would eliminate their structural deficit of $1.8 million – and their firefighters would still earn average pay plus benefits, after the reduction, of $187,285 per year, and their sheriffs would still earn average pay plus benefits, after the reduction, of $160,412 per year. The average household income in Stanton during 2012 was $48,146.

A final observation – CalPERS has announced a 50% increase in required annual pension contributions, to be phased in between now and 2017. If Orange County’s independent pension system follows suit, and there is no evidence their financial imperatives differ significantly from CalPERS, then Stanton’s annual required pension contributions will increase by $2.2 million per year – nearly all of that for public safety. So even if Measure GG passes, the projected surplus of $1.3 million will probably be more than offset by increased pension contributions. Expect more taxes, or start cutting pay and benefits.

It is always important to emphasize that public safety employees deserve to be paid a premium to compensate for the risks they take to protect the public. But Stanton’s citizens and elected officials, and their counterparts in cities throughout Orange County, will have to decide where to draw the line on that premium. Perhaps the facts should speak for themselves.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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