Many small and little-known public agencies in Sonoma County paid managers more than $100,000 a year, according to 2009 salary data released by the state controller.
The salary information for small special districts is the latest in a series of payroll reports intended to shed light on how government has spent money during a time of significant budget cuts.
"The purpose of this is really to inform local taxpayers," said Jacob Roper, spokesman for Controller John Chiang. "It certainly has raised the question for some local taxpayers as to whether those salaries are justified, and there have been other taxpayers who looked at their cities and said, &‘Hey, we're getting a good deal here.'"
The controller last week released salaries for employees of library, mosquito abatement, conservation, air quality, airport and other agencies.
Some of the largest pay went to heads of the little-known Redwood Empire Municipal Insurance Fund, the Redwood Empire School Insurance Group, the North Bay Cooperative Library District and the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District.
The highest salary for Sonoma County agencies covered by the data was paid to the general manager of the Sonoma County Open Space Authority, who reported $164,626 in wages in 2009.
The district, which listed 26 employees that year, has since become part of Sonoma County government and reduced its payroll expenses by 10 percent, in part through voluntary departures, said Bill Keene, general manager.
The district eliminated several positions including the assistant general manager, who was paid $121,576 in 2009.
"We're lean in terms of our staffing, compared to other districts that are similar to ours," Keene said.
The second-highest wage, $160,149, went to the general manager of the Redwood Empire Municipal Insurance Fund, which listed 10 employees' salaries. The Sonoma-based district handles workers compensation and property insurance for 15 North Coast cities from Sonoma to Eureka. That general manager has since retired, said Mark Ferguson, the current general manager.
The fund was formed in the mid-1970s when many insurance companies wanted out of the business of insuring cities, Ferguson said.
"The loss ratios were really high because we had police and fire, and when they got hurt it was really expensive," Ferguson said.
Many insurance pools popped up around the state to fill the gap and provide insurance for public agencies, he said. Unlike private companies, the fund returns unused monies to the municipalities, sometimes $1 million in a year.
Salaries there have been frozen for the past three years, and he's making less than his predecessor, he said.
Ferguson said salaries there are comparable to working for a mid-sized private insurance firm, but lower than those paid by larger companies.
"We're not a for-profit insurance company, and nobody really cares about us too much, even though we do a vital service for our cities and save them a lot of money," Ferguson said.
At another insurance pool, the Redwood Empire School Insurance Group, the executive director earned $149,309 in 2009, and two other employees had salaries that exceeded $100,000. The Windsor-based group handles insurance for all of the primary schools in Sonoma County and one in Marin, and returned more than $1 million in unused premiums to the schools last year, said Brent Howatt, executive director.
"Essentially we are like a small insurance company that's owned by the school districts."