As some of Palo Alto's longest serving police officers and firefighters head for retirement in the face of benefit reductions, some are cashing in on years' worth of unused vacation, holiday and sick pay -- factors that in some instances have caused their overall compensation to more than double.
According to a list of 2011 salaries the city released Monday evening, March 5, police and firefighters continue to dominate Palo Alto's list of highest-paid employees. Of the 15 highest paid officials, 12 are public-safety workers (including the top seven). But what's different about the new list is the high number of recent retirees, particularly in the police department.
These include Lt. Kenneth Denson, a 31-year veteran of the police department who retired at the end of last year. Denson, whose long resume includes stints as commander of the SWAT team, the supervisor of the canine unit and a homicide detective, received a special resolution and a standing ovation from the City Council Monday night. Councilman Sid Espinosa, who read the resolution, pointed out that Denson had solved every homicide that took place during his tenure and that he achieved conviction in each case.
In addition to earning the council's praise, Denson also earned $407,908 in total wages in 2011, according to city data, making him the highest paid city worker in 2011. Of this sum, $212,738 consisted of "cash out" pay, which accounts for such factors as vacations, holidays and unused sick pay. His regular salary was $195,169.
Denson is far from alone in cashing out upon retirement. The five highest paid city employees in 2011 are all people who retired at the end of the year and whose total wages were inflated by cash-out payments. Fire Captain Jason Amdur finished second on the list with $322,734, which includes a $94,082 base salary, $65,365 in overtime and $163,286 in cash-out payments. He is followed on the list by three recently retired police officers -- Lt. Douglas Keith, Lt. Scott Wong and Capt. Mark Venable -- all of whom earned close to $300,000 in total wages.
The only city officials on the list of top ten earners who are not public-safety employees are City Manager James Keene (whose $246,811 made him the ninth-highest paid city worker in 2011) and Mary Minto, a management specialist in the Library Department whose $81,010 salary is dwarfed by a cash-out payment of $164,082. Minto retired last year.
The city's salary list reflects one of City Hall's most conspicuous trends on 2011 -- an exodus of veteran officers from the police department. Special resolutions for departing lieutenants, once a rarity, have become a common site in the Council Chambers in recent months as Keith, Wong, Denson and Lt. Sandra Brown all stepped down. Lt. Zach Perron praised Denson for his service at the Monday meeting but noted that there's been a "remarkable loss of institutional knowledge" in the department.
"Lt. Denson is a shining example of that loss," Perron said.
The overall salary expenditures varied little between 2010 and 2011, rising from $101.1 million to $102.1 million largely because of the cash-out payments. The relatively stationary figures reflect the city's recent suspension of salary raises in light of the recent economic downturn. The City Council has also aggressively targeted employee benefits over the past three years, creating a second pension tier for most labor unions (the tier would provide less generous benefits for newly hired employees) and requiring workers to contribute for their health care costs.
The council imposed the new benefits on its largest labor unit, the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, in 2009. Last fall, it reached a similar agreement with the firefighters union after 18 months of heated negotiations. Management's effort to get concessions from its largest police union, the Palo Alto Police Officers Association, has proven thornier, prompting the city to declare an impasse last month.