Yet another local government agency in California is under fire for the seemingly outsized compensation paid to one of its employees. This time the spotlight is on the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System and its recently retired chief executive, Samuel Downing. The controversy isn't Downing's $150,000 annual pension as much as the $3.9 million in supplemental retirement benefits awarded by the healthcare system's board.
Downing's employers defended the supplemental payments, saying that consultants found them to be in line with what "comparable organizations" pay. But as The Times' Sam Allen reported Wednesday, Downing's package was far more generous than those promised to administrators of several larger public hospitals.
Tales like this one illustrate the challenge that public agencies face as they try to run big, costly programs effectively, whether hospitals or universities or prisons. They have to compete with the private sector to attract and keep talented administrators, and applicants may not be willing to take a much lower salary to work for government. But many taxpayers recoil from the idea of paying top dollar for top talent, arguing instead that work in public service requires a sacrifice.
Pensions in the public sector have become a particular sore point because they reward longevity, not performance, and because few private-sector employers provide them any longer to the rank and file. They're also straining some city and state budgets, leading lawmakers to press public workers — most of whom make a fraction of Downing's salary — to accept reduced benefits.