Monday, Aug. 7, 2006 | On Friday, in the blog I made use of the spread sheet and did some calculating related to the seemingly innocuous boost to the automobile allowances the San Diego County supervisors’ gave themselves and numerous managers last week.

Turns out, the move looked like a salary increase, smelled like one and pretty much was a salary increase.

While I agree that it’s an important benefit of employment to pay for someone’s driving cost, I’m not sure why reimbursing them for driving should necessarily boost they’re lifetime pensions as well.

Yet, that’s what they did. A seemingly simple little increase in the supervisors automobile allowance will provide about a $1,500 per year benefit to the supervisors (and a cost to county taxpayers) for as long as the supervisors stay alive. That doesn’t include the actual allowance.

Shortly after I posted that, I got a call from a county employee who says that normal Joe Lunchboxes at the county get reimbursed at a rate of 44 cents per mile. That reimbursement is plenty, I think. Consider that the average American driver gets about 18 miles per gallon of gas. The supervisors would receive about $7.92 to help pay for every gallon of gas their cars chug. In other words, for every 100 miles they travel, they’d get $44 – more than enough to cover the cost of maintaining their vehicles.

Receiving a reimbursement like that wouldn’t be taxed and it wouldn’t apply to the calculation of the supervisors’ pension.

Why don’t the supervisors just do that?

They had to know that boosting their car allowances got them a bit of a boost in their pensions as well.

To be sure, the county supervisors – before the car allowance increases in October – are making about $127,000 total a year.

I should be clear: I think $127,000, a lifetime pension and a lifetime of health care coverage is pretty good compensation for a supervisor.

But I understand that the compensation will need to rise over time to make sure we attract quality candidates to run for the board.

What galls me about the supervisors is their maneuvering.

Last year, the Supes angled for a 25 percent salary increase. At the time (January 2005), they were making $115,070. The raise would have boosted their salaries to $143,838.

The U-T’s Daniel Chacon covered this quite well. The public, according to his stories, unleashed its wrath at the supervisors for pushing for such an increase. You’ll remember Supervisor Bill Horn’s infamous little utterance:

“… he said the supervisors have done a good job managing the county by balancing a multibillion-dollar budget and deserve the salary increases based on their performance.

‘It is true we are elected, but nobody who got elected took a vow of poverty,’ he said Wednesday. ‘We’re not Franciscans.’”

That statement provoked a real Franciscan monk to protest the county.

Hilarious.

Like I said, Chacon really ran with that story and the U-T actually had a thoughtful and well-reasoned editorial on the subject. The outcry forced the supervisors to scrap their lucrative plans.

Or did they?

On Friday, I also dug into the highlights of the state budget and found another interesting little nugget. Turns out, the supervisors decided long ago that they would tie their salaries to those of judges. They decided they would receive 80 percent of whatever salaries state Superior Court judges earned.

County officials confirmed that the tie is automatic – meaning that if the judges’ salary goes up, so do the supervisors’. Wouldn’t you know it, the Legislature – with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s blessing – decided to give judges an 8.5 percent raise starting Jan. 1.

I suppose, like the Franciscans, the Supervisors could decide to change the law and refuse the increase.

The boost will send their total salaries to somewhere a bit north of $142,800 a year.

That’s not quite as high as they would have had under Horn’s Anti-Poverty Action Plan of 2005, or APAP2005, but it’s still a 13 percent raise.

By the two-year anniversary of APAP2005, the Supes will have raised their salary and comfortably boosted their lifetime pensions quite a bit.

Their only mistake before with APAP2005, they must have realized, was to let the public get involved in their salary discussion.

And that’s where I have the problem. Last year, had the supervisors simply proposed a normal sized salary increase – a boost of something like 4 percent – they probably would have gotten it. So good would the will have been, in fact, that they probably could have asked for a similar raise in the near future.

Instead, they let the state Legislature decide their salaries by allowing them to stay tied to the salaries of judges.

And then, without discussion, they boosted their “automobile allowance.” Again, although this is supposedly to reimburse them for all the driving they do, they didn’t bother to mention that we now have to pay them higher pensions for the rest of their lives because of this boost to their “allowances.”

If they want a higher pension and salary, they should be more open about it. If their service to the county is as valuable as they claim, taxpayers will sign off on the deals.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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