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City pay brews anger

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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City officials find themselves on the hot seat after questionable financial practices have led to controversy. Populist rage has been brewing over six-digit pensions, double dipping, excessive perks and large salaries for city workers at a time of extreme economic pressures that have led to a 40 percent reduction of the city’s workforce. Rocklin resident Diane Gagliani, who lives on Social Security, said news of the city council allowing city employees to bank hundreds of hours of sick time for years is distasteful. “I’m not happy about it,” Gagliani said. “The whole economy is in the pits right now.” Recently, City Manager Carlos Urrutia cashed out $159,452 in sick and vacation leave time. For former Assistant City Manager Terry Richardson it was $91,612 and Police Chief Mark Siemens $65,891. It was part of their contract that the city council approved. That doesn’t sit well with Corey Wallace who said it’s time for the city to start focusing on public safety instead of perks for employees. “The politicians are all wasteful,” Wallace said. “All this waste of money is a joke. They need to get back to the basics. That’s how I was brought up.” The pressure comes at a time when the city is focused on finding the next city manager. Next week, the city council is expected to start interviewing a pool of candidates, which has been whittled down from a class of nearly 70 applicants. Urrutia, who officially retires in December, did not want to comment on the details of his employment contract, but said he doesn’t mind being under the microscope. “There is much scrutiny about public sector compensation, not only in California, but throughout the nation,” Urrutia said. Tuesday, eight city officials from Bell, were arrested and charged with misappropriating $5.5 million in public funds after public outcry led to an investigation. Those arrested included the mayor of Bell, city manager and city council members who are accused of lining their pockets with taxpayers’ money. Rocklin gained a lot of attention after it was reported that the city council approved a 42 percent increase in salary for Urrutia in the last few years of his tenure. One watchdog group called it pension spiking. The city has also been scrutinized for rehiring retired annuitants, including Urrutia and Siemens, who collect a state pension while working part time in their old job. The practice is commonly known as double dipping. While some say it’s unethical, the United States Internal Revenue Service confirms it’s a common and legal practice. The city contends it saved them nearly a million dollars in salary. Six-digit pensions for the city’s top jobs have also upset Rocklin residents like Callie Cullen who has seen her dad struggle after losing his job to the bad economy. “The whole thing is irritating,” Cullen said. “My dad has been out of work for two years and is scrapping by. Then you have people like this, ‘Hey, we’re going to make sure you get all that money we promised to you even though we don’t have it.’” Cullen thinks the city should renegotiate contracts to avoid paying unnecessary perks. In June, the city negotiated deals with employee unions to get salary concessions in exchange for a reduction in the number of city layoffs. This year the average cost of salary and benefits per employee is $119,954 for 245 city employees. That cost is actually up from the previous year when it was $110,250 for 278 employees. According to the city, the reason for increase costs include merit increases, longevity increases, workers’ comp rate increases and loss of lower paid employees (via layoff). Urrutia said the city has worked hard to keep salaries in the middle of the class compared to other regional cities. “Our goal is to attract and retain a qualified workforce and we have done so effectively,” Urrutia said. “Our per capita number of employees tends to be in the lower end and the quality of our services tends to be in the high end.”  Rocklin City Councilman Brett Storey said citizens he’s talk to trust him to do his homework and make the tough calls. He said at the end of the day, Rocklin is a great place to live and people need to look on the bright side. “If we had a high crime rate, loss in police and fire, rundown neighborhoods and then (city workers) were making all that money – then it would be a travesty,” Storey said. Storey said Urrutia is a legend who’s performance justifies his salary. He said Urrutia is being demonized at the end of 26 years of service building Rocklin into what it is today. “He did a fantastic job of saving us money,” Storey said. “We didn’t build up a $20 million reserve by luck of the draw. We did it with Carlos’s leadership. That’s getting us through this time and not having to lay off more employees.” Storey said even so, he hopes to make some changes. “I am looking to bring the city manager salary down,” Storey said. “I truly believe we have good candidates and that we can get that number under $200,000 a year, where it should be.” Storey may be aided by up to two council candidates running in the Nov 2 election. One of the only candidates to come out against the excess leave payouts is Mark Klang who said he wanted to run for city council to clean-up the city’s financial mess. “If elected, I would eliminate sick days (for employees),” Klang said. “I would only allow city employees to carry over two weeks of vacation. The time has come for the city council to stop using our tax dollars to take care of their friends.” For Rocklin resident Pam Gottenberg, the city’s fancy accounting needs to come to an end and citizens need to put pressure on the city council to make harder choices. “It’s all misplaced funding,” Gottenberg said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It seems to me, people should be doing something more about it instead of allowing them to lay off people. We have to criticize ourselves for not fixing it.” Average cost for pay/benefits per city employee 2009/2010: $119,954 for 245 employees 2010/2011: $110,250 for 278 employees Source: City of Rocklin