Posted: March 8, 2012 - mercurynews.com
Public safety employees were among the top earners in Palo Alto last year, according to newly released salary data.
The highest-paid person in the city was police Lt. Kenneth Denson, who took home a whopping $407,908 in calendar year 2011. More than half that sum -- $212,738 -- was attributed to a "cash-out" of unused vacation and sick leave. His base salary was $195,169, according to the data released Tuesday night.
Denson, who retired on Dec. 30 after 31 years with the city, was among a dwindling group of employees who predate a rule change that prevents workers from converting unused sick leave into pay, said Marcie Scott, assistant director of human resources. Members of the Palo Alto Police Officers Association hired after Aug. 1, 1986, cannot cash out sick leave.
A detailed breakdown of Denson's cash-out was not immediately available Wednesday afternoon.
Denson was in good company. Among the top 100 earners in the city, 77 worked for the police or fire departments and drew total wages in excess of $151,000, according to the salary data. Eight of the top 10 earners were retirees, too.
Fire Capt. Jason Amdur, who left the city's employ on Sept. 11, trailed Denson with a total take-home of $322,734, and police management specialist Douglas Keith, who departed on Sept. 13, ranked third with $311,060.
Similar to Denson, Amdur was hired before the city changed the cash-out rule for members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1319; it doesn't apply to anyone hired before Dec. 31, 1983. Amdur, who was paid a base salary of $94,082 and earned $65,365 in overtime last year, received a $163,286 cash-out, according to the salary data.
By way of comparison, the city's top official, James Keene, was No. 7 on the list. The city manager earned a total of $246,811, although that sum did not include other perks such as a home loan.
Exact figures weren't immediately available Wednesday, but Scott said the city has seen a rise in retirements since 2009, when it began seeking concessions from its various labor groups.
"We've had an elevated number of retirements as we've reached agreements that include employee concessions," she said.
According to the salary data, several of the top-paid firefighters retired around the time the city inked a tough new contract with the union last fall. The agreement will require employees to begin paying their full 9 percent CalPERS pension contribution at the start of the next fiscal year and cover 10 percent of their medical insurance premiums going forward.
The retirement trend is expected to continue, particularly with the city poised to impose a similar contract on the Police Officers Association. The city declared an impasse with the union on Feb. 24.
While public safety employees are retiring with big salaries, which ultimately influence their pensions, the city expects the introduction of a reduced retirement benefit for new workers to result in savings.
New firefighters, for example, won't be eligible to retire until age 55, and instead of calculating a pension based on the single highest salary earned in a single year, it will be based on an average salary of the three highest consecutive years worked.
There are, however, costs associated with the wave of retirements that cannot be defined by dollars and cents.
"We are at a time of evolution and change in our police department," Lt. Zach Perron said during a ceremony Monday to recognize Denson for his years of service. "As you've all heard, there's been a remarkable loss of institutional knowledge and experience within our ranks due to recent retirements and Lt. Denson, as his remarkable professional resume suggests, is a shining example of that loss."