Two is usually better than one, and that’s certainly true when it comes to databases of government employee compensation.
In the case of California, there are two main searchable statewide databases.
Those sites are TransparentCalifornia.com, which provides information on government payrolls and pensions, and the State Controller’s Office (SCO) Government Compensation website. The main advantage of Transparent California is that it includes employee names, while the main identifier on the SCO site is job title.
Providing names allows anyone — reporters, for instance — to easily find out what specific employees are precisely making. In a recent CBS Los Angeles report, for example, a reporter accessed Transparent California and called attention to former LA County Assessor, John Noguez, who despite being indicted on 24 charges of fraud and corruption charges, is still compensated to a tune of over $288,000 a year.
Having two datasets available also allows researchers to compare the information on the sites and find errors — unintentional or otherwise. Here are several errors on the SCO site, that are obvious when compared to information now available on Transparent California.
Data from the City of Waterford contains a significant error on the SCO website. It underreports the Waterford’s employee retirement contributions by up to 90 percent. For the City Manager, the City’s retirement contribution of nearly $23,000 is reported as only $2,480 on the SCO site. Records for all City of Waterford employees have a similar pattern.
As Transparent California compiles this data based on employee name, which is how compensation is processed and identified, the accuracy of the data reported is going to be significantly higher than reporting by job title. As payments are made by employee name, it is rather straight forward to confirm the accuracy of the pay for a “John Smith – Director” as compared to confirming the accuracy of compensation data associated with merely “Director.” In the former, you are able to access the actual payroll documents that can verify the information reported, in the latter, no such process is available and one must rely on the accuracy of the preparer of the report who originally transcribed this data from an employee’s payroll record, before later removing that employee’s name.
A second, more innocuous error is the pension formula reported for the Bard Water District’s employees — 7 percent at 55. The correct formula is likely 2.5 percent at 55 or possibly as high as 3 percent. Also the $0 in employer-paid retirement contributions for the District’s General Manager is unlikely, but Transparent California has not yet received a response from the Bard Water District seeking confirmation of this information.
Third, data from the City of Beverly Hills, which comes from a report on the city’s own website, also contains an error. Transparent California questioned a whopping $58,581.66 annual health insurance premium for one employee! The City confirmed that this value was indeed an error and provided TransparentCalifornia.com with the corrected amount of $20,916.50, which is still incredibly high. Both the SCO and Beverly Hills itself still display the erroneous value of $58,599 on their sites.
Sacramento County’s 2012 data contains a fourth error. The SCO identifies the District Attorney as having total pay and benefits of $253,199. This particular example emphasizes just how important including employee names are. As Sacramento County only has one employee with the job title of District Attorney, it is clear Jan Scully Royse occupies this position. The accurate data on Transparent California, however, shows her 2012 compensation was $285,252. Unfortunately spot checking for errors like this one isn’t possible for the overwhelming majority of cases where government employees share identical job titles.
A fifth, rather dramatic error is found with the Fire Chief of Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District. While the SCO lists the Chief as earning $2,769 in total wages for 2012, the recently acquired data (yet to be uploaded) from the District puts the total wages received for the District’s Fire Chief at over $80,000 for 2012.
There is no evidence any of these errors are deliberate. Honest mistakes happen, especially when working with several million records.
What Transparent California allows the public and policymakers to find, however, is accurate and searchable data that in important ways is more complete than the SCO’s site. Transparent California looks forward to the day when the SCO data also includes names so that citizens can use the sites to fully spot check each other.
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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.