No doubt you’ve seen the series of stories The Gazette has published over the last few weeks listing the top earners on local public payrolls.
People on public payrolls typically don’t like these stories. They dislike even more the searchable online databases that allow anyone to find out any public employee’s salary, from the school bus driver, to the state office worker, to your child’s teacher.
The employees are unhappy because they believe their privacy is being violated. That’s understandable. We live in a society in which openly discussing the size of your paycheck, or your bank account balance, is definitely considered bad form.
But these are public jobs. We publish these salaries, and encourage people to check out online databases, because these salaries are paid for with tax dollars. Public oversight is important, both when it comes to who is hired and how much they’re paid.
That’s why each year in January, we ask many of the governmental entities we cover to provide us dollar details on their top earners. Under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, that information is deemed public.
Once we get the lists, reporters review them for trends or departures from the norm. The information can be illuminating. People you might think would be highly paid are not. Mayors, police chiefs and fire chiefs rarely top the lists, for example.
What we’ve learned over time is that public safety workers, especially police officers, dominate these local top-earners lists. It happens so often that we’re a bit surprised when they don’t.
Reporting on salaries has consequently sparked important discussion about overtime policies and pension calculations. Under existing state pension rules, retirement payouts are based on the top three contiguous years’ earnings. Making as much as possible as public employees near retirement can consequently substantially boost the size of their checks in the golden years.
It’s easy to understand why workers would seize opportunities available to increase their paychecks, especially as they near retirement. What’s worthy of further discussion, however, are the public policies in place here.
Should we doing all we can to ensure the best possible retirement payout for longtime public servants? Can people function effectively when they are working 50, 60 or 70 hours a week in order to boost their pensions? Is it good for the employee’s own well-being to be working so much? Does reducing overtime make financial sense? Operational sense?
Newspapers aren’t alone in disseminating this kind of information. Salary figures for every public employee are available via the SeeThroughNY database maintained by The Empire Center, a fiscally conservative non-profit agency that monitors public spending. An Empire Center report last fall, for example, took a hard look at the state’s practice of allowing retirees to “double dip,” collecting pensions while getting paid for jobs after returning to work from retirement. Existing rules restrict retirees under age 65 from earning $30,000 or more from a state or local agency while still collecting their pension; the Empire Center report found.
One of our responsibilities as journalists is to hold government accountable, a responsibility that includes monitoring how tax dollars are spent.
In local cities, towns, school districts and villages, a significant amount of money is spent each year on salaries.
We don’t seek out these figures to question how hard public employees work or whether they deserve the money they make.
What we’re trying to do is add information to spark a greater public discourse on government spending and management.
Judy Patrick is editor of The Daily Gazette. You can reach her at [email protected]