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Jon Coupal- Columnist

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

County Revenues: The Myth v. the Reality
Counties overspending taxpayers' money
[Jon Coupal and Steve Frates] 12/15/04

Given the constant drumbeat in the media about "cutbacks" in county governments, the average Californian could be forgiven for thinking that county governments throughout the state are near-broke and are under acute financial pressure. But citizens need to understand that there is a big difference between the whining and the reality.

An analysis of county payroll expenditures in California indicates that county employees have done very well indeed over the past several years. In 1997, the total payroll for county government employees in California was approximately $12.1 billion. By 2002, that number had shot up to $17.9 billion, an increase of almost 48%.

Of course, California's population increased during this same period, but not nearly as rapidly as county payroll expenditures. In 1997, California citizens were paying $381.65 per capita to finance county payrolls. By 2002, each citizen was chipping in $523.15, a change of over 37%. This means that the average family of four in California paid almost $2100 out of their own pocketbooks to cover salaries (not including benefits) for county employees.

Public Safety Shorted

In this post-9/11 world, most Californians might think that public safety is the highest priority of their elected county supervisors. They'd be wrong. Total payroll expenditures for county police functions (i.e., sheriffs' departments) statewide increased from approximately $1.74 billion in 1997 to a little over $1.94 billion in 2002, an increase of slightly over 32%. This 32% increase, while substantial, pales in comparison to increases for welfare system payrolls, judicial and legal payrolls, and health system payrolls.

Welfare Employee Payrolls

Payroll expenditure for welfare system employees increased from approximately $1.58 billion in 1997 to approximately $2.72 billion in 2002, an increase of over 72%. It is interesting to note that the total number of welfare recipients in California actually declined from approximately 2.48 million in January of 1997 to approximately 1.1 million in December of 2003. The total number of county welfare system employees in 1997 was 46,681 and this number grew to 63,716 such employees in 2002.

While it is true that many of the people formerly on welfare who are now working are still receiving Medi-Cal health insurance benefits and other services, the increase in payroll costs for welfare employees is staggering and needs explanation.

The blame for this exponential growth in welfare payrolls does not lie exclusively with county governments. The legislature has, over the past fifteen years or so, developed an increasingly arcane and perverse incentive system that encourages counties to expand their welfare systems. These perverse incentives have been conjured up by an increasingly partisan left-wing legislative majority. Republican legislators who either did not comprehend or did not object to these perverse incentives can also share the blame for this sorry mess. In any case, local officials should be freed to reallocate resources in a manner that better reflects their constituents' priorities. In short, the welfare swamp in Sacramento needs to be drained.

Judicial and Legal Payrolls

Growth in county judicial and legal payrolls has also been spectacular. In 1997, the cost of such payrolls was about $1.58 billion statewide. By 2002, it had grown to approximately $2.67 billion, or over 68%. Similarly large increases were recorded in county health system payrolls, which increased from approximately $1.13 billion in 1997 to almost $1.89 billion in 2002, an increase of over 67%. Payroll increases in county financial administration statewide were approximately 45% during the same period, and payrolls for general government administration were up almost 41% during the same time frame.

In 50 counties, citizen payroll expenditures per capita for welfare system employees increased faster than citizen personal income in those counties. In 48 counties, citizen payroll expenditures per capita for health care system employees increased faster than citizen personal income per capita in those counties. In sum, citizen payroll expenditures per capita for county employees increased much faster than citizen personal income per capita between 1997 and 2002.

There is a group of Californians under financial pressure all right, but it is not the county employees; it's the beleaguered taxpayers.CRO

Jon Coupal is an attorney and President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Steven Frates is the President of the Center for Government Analysis and a Senior Fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

copyright 2004 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association




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