State Controller John Chiang

California State Controller John Chiang started releasing data on city and state employee salaries and compensation last fall. His office is steadily adding to the database: last week data for transit, water, hospital and other agencies was added to the publicly available information.

Whenever Berkeleyside writes about city government, it’s a certainty that a number of commenters will remark on high salaries and overstaffing. The State Controller’s database provides a chance to compare how Berkeley does against other cities.

At the top of the scale, Berkeley’s ten highest paid employees are roughly comparable to neighboring Oakland and Richmond:

The total wages includes overtime, bonuses and vacation pay (everything reported in Box 5 of the employee’s W-2 form). Berkeley’s police chief’s salary in 2009 was $220,242 — so there were nearly $150,000 of additional payments to Douglas Hambleton, who retired in 2009. Five of Berkeley’s top 10 are police, compared to eight of the 10 in Oakland. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson recently pointed out that police officers and firefighters comprise 440 of Oakland’s highest paid 500 employees. In Berkeley, police and fire make up 299 of the top 500.

The figures make clear the importance of the current negotiations between city officials and the Berkeley Police Association. What the data doesn’t show, however, is the weight of retirement benefits on the city budget. Unfunded liabilities have been cited by City Manager Phil Kamlarz as the key issue for the city’s finances going forward; police and fire make up a large percentage of those liabilities.

What’s striking looking at the data is how closely Berkeley tracks to comparable cities. Kamlarz’s total wages in 2009 of $245,324 compares to $257,777 for his Richmond equivalent, and $246,936 for his Oakland equivalent. The similarities proliferate in other areas. Berkeley’s director of library services had total wages in 2009 of $179,891; Richmond’s had $161,937 and Oakland’s $177,470. Berkeley’s city attorney had wages of $173,313 in 2009; Richmond’s $171,834. Oakland’s, however, was considerably higher at $211,528.

“We try to stay around the median in total compensation,” explained Kamlarz. “When we do salary negotiations, we do salary surveys of comparable cities in the Bay Area. And not just salaries but total compensation.”

Kamlarz said comparability is important for the city so that it can recruit qualified staff. “We look at those places we compete with for employees,” he said.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...