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Riding the public gravy train

L.A.'s water and power utility plans to hand out bonuses and raises to its already well-paid employees. And an L.A. County supervisor has $707,000 to remodel his office. What's the deal?

December 09, 2009|Steve Lopez
  • L.A.'s fiscal storm clouds haven't affected all city agencies, notably the Department of Water and Power.
L.A.'s fiscal storm clouds haven't affected all city agencies,… (Los Angeles Times )

If you're looking for work in this rotten economy, I've got a tip:

Run, don't walk, to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and apply for anything they've got.

A reader sent me a posting for an executive secretary position at the DWP, and the salary range is $68,089 to $97,864, with great benefits.

"A good secretary is worth her weight in gold," said my e-mailer. "Only in the Los Angeles DWP do they take that quite literally."

I like that line, but does a DWP executive secretary make more than his or her counterparts in other city departments?

Absolutely, and it isn't even close.

I checked with the personnel department and found that the same position in other city departments starts at $54,000 and ranges up to $72,000.

Top pay, in other words, is $25,000 more at the DWP, and the gravy train is not limited to secretaries.

A DWP custodian can make $50,000, compared to $36,000 in other departments. A DWP gardener tops out at $56,000, versus $46,000.

And it gets even better for the utility's employees.

Today, as my colleague David Zahniser tells me, the L.A. City Council is expected to approve a five-year deal for DWP employees that includes a bonus the first year and raises every year thereafter.

Did you just spit coffee on yourself?

If so, my apologies.

How could such a raise be justified when the state is in the midst of a ghastly fiscal crisis, unemployment is off the charts, cops have just been denied a raise and there's a humongous budget shortfall at City Hall?

It doesn't have to be justified. It's just the way things work in a bureaucracy controlled by the likes of Brian D'Arcy, the feared head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, which represents thousands of DWP employees. Any politician who wishes to belly up to the public trough, and stay there, wants to keep the powerful union boss happy.

In my new Talk Back feature on The Times' website, I asked readers Tuesday what they thought of the DWP raises, as well as a proposal by Los Angeles County supervisors to study a possible rehab of the Hall of Justice, where repairs for earthquake damage have been estimated at $100 million.

Readers went on a rampage.

"As a city of L.A. employee, subject to a 12% pay decrease due to forced Furlough Days (2 per month), I am having to put my home up for sale because I just cannot afford my mortgage; despite my frugal existence," RG wrote. "To see that DWP is opting for pay raises is very disheartening, to say the least."

"Looks like they get paid for every water main break," Da Maverick wrote.

But readers had more than just a couple of civic center targets in their sights.

"Oh, Steve, what about [L.A. County Supervisor Mark] Ridley-Thomas' $170,000 office remodel?" asked Diane W. "In times like this? APPALLING! Shameful! Nauseating and Disgusting!"

There was just one problem with Diane W.'s e-mail.

It wasn't a $170,000 remodeling job. As first reported by KABC-TV Channel 7, it was a $707,000 remodeling job.

That, by the way, is twice the cost of two median-priced homes in L.A. County.

"To work in an environment that's decent is part of what it means to keep people motivated," Ridley-Thomas told KABC.

They need new carpets to get motivated? I'd show them the unemployment numbers, and see if that motivates them.

Ridley-Thomas told me the $707,000 has been approved but not yet spent, so he'll look for cost savings as the project proceeds. He also said his office is cramped, has code violations and isn't as nice as those of his colleagues. I offered to come check it out, and he said he'd have to think about it.

I was in that office when it was occupied by former Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, and I don't recall that it was in any better or worse shape than the others. Even if it were overdue for upgrades, isn't that something you put on hold, spending the money instead on programs that will help your suffering constituents?

Naturally, the other supervisors approved the expense, as did the county executive, because Rule No. 1 at that back-slapping factory is to never ruffle feathers.

On another matter, Ridley-Thomas has refused The Times' requests for records of communication between his office and an associate "who has been employed by corporations that do millions of dollars of business with the county and a rail project that Ridley-Thomas helps oversee," as The Times reported.

But in his defense, he might have been busy picking fabric.

I probably should call Burke and see what she makes of Ridley-Thomas knocking her old office. I've been meaning to call, anyway, because we haven't spoken since I asked why she didn't appear to be living in the district she represented as a supervisor.

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