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A tale of two incomes: public vs. private compensation

  • This artwork by Mark Weber relates to money, a potential economic recovery, and the financial concerns of American families and the ways those concerns influence the life choices people can make.

As reported on Sunday, a Press Democrat analysis of local government salaries found that 13.7 percent of city and county government employees in Sonoma County were paid in excess of $100,000 in 2009.

We don't know the exact percentage of private sector workers in that six-figure range. But we do know that it's substantially less given that, according to U.S. Census figures, only 8.2 percent of all workers in the county — public and private combined — earned more than $100,000 that year.

These numbers only add to a growing public frustration over generous employee compensation packages and retirement benefits in an era of shrinking government budgets.

But the primary question is not whether the disparity between those earning in excess of $100,000 in the public and private sectors is fair at the moment. The key question is whether it's sustainable.

Wisely, most elected officials in the county appear to have reached the conclusion that it's not, which is why many governments, including the city of Santa Rosa, are in negotiation with public employee labor groups about revising pay and benefits.

Meanwhile, a growing number of public employee unions are slowly accepting the fact that reform is necessary. This was demonstrated last week when members of Service Employees International Union Local 1000, California's largest state employee union, approved a contract that lowers pay by nearly 5 percent and rolls back pension benefits.

But there's another side to this disparity. What about pay in the private sector?

Perhaps the most alarming fact in Sunday's analysis is not that a single Santa Rosa police sergeant made, in base pay and overtime, in excess of $176,000 in 2009. The most discouraging statistic is that the median earnings for workers across Sonoma County was $31,190 last year, according to the Census Bureau. And that includes the income from public employees. The median earnings for public workers in Sonoma County was $56,085, according to a database analysis of numbers provided by the state Controller's Office.

Scaling back on public employee pay and benefits is needed. But it's not the only solution to closing the gap between public and private compensation. The county also needs to focus on encouraging the growth of companies that provide high-paying private sector jobs, thus raising median earnings across the board.

That's a harder nut to crack than cutting pay. But both are necessary to close the gap.


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