Jon Coupal- Columnist
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]
Revenues: The Myth v. the Reality
Counties overspending taxpayers' money...
[Jon Coupal and Steve Frates] 12/15/04
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
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
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
2004 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association