Cost of War to City and County
When the federal government takes our employees should they be responsible for the cost to our community?
In 2009, when I ran for Santa Barbara City Council, I was present for budget discussions where Police Chief Cam Sanchez explained that one of the difficulties of the previous years was the cost of unfunded federal mandates that applied upon the activation and deployment of reservists and National Guard who are part of the city’s police force. He had up to four cops out at a time! City attorney Steve Wiley outlined for me the mandates and associated costs: The city is required to hold the positions open, causing overtime for the remaining officers. Also, the rules mandate pension continuity (so, no savings there). Additionally, the city pays a salary differential so that a private will not lose the house he bought as a city police officer.
The mandates and differential apply to all city, county, and agency employees (Metropolitan Transit District, etc.), not just cops.
When I tried to get real numbers from the city, I got the following.
This is in response to your email of October 24, 2010.
“Between September 2001 and November 2009, we had nine employees who received our military pay differential for a total of $194,944 or an average of $21,660 per employee on military leave.
As you know the City Council approved a policy whereby the City would pay the difference between an employee’s City pay and their military pay in order to keep their salaries whole while on military leave. We have not had any employees utilize this policy since November 2009. Information related to benefits, retirement, and overtime caused because a coworker is on military leave is not something that we track and as such is not readily available.
Human Resources Manager”
Note that this is only the salary differential, not the more expensive pension obligation, overtime, etc. I asked the county for the same information. Again, the only information I could get was about the differential. This was the response from the county, emailed by then-CEO Mike Brown:
“From: Brown, Michael F. (CEO)
To: Carbajal, Salud ; Geis, Bob (Auditor-Controller)
Cc: Wolf, Janet ; Muth, Jeri; Marshall, Dennis
Sent: Mon Oct 25 10:48:31 2010
Subject: RE: Cost of war to county
For those employees whose units are activated or individual employees who are activated we do pay the difference between their military pay and what they were making here if their military pay is less and we do preserve their retirement. For the first years of the Iraq War we sometimes had as many as 12 gone at one time but this eased down over time and I don’t know if there are any gone now. Our policy says we will cover up to 30 months . In the big picture it wasn’t a lot of money. Not all activated employees who went received it because their military rank caused their pay to be higher than their County pay. It would take some historical research to see what we paid. Given the sensitivity of this issue and before we act, I believe it would be proper for the Board to direct staff to conduct such research and prepare a report by a majority vote in a public session.”
As you can see, the city and county refused to calculate or even address the cost of providing pension continuity for the employees. My guess is that the better paid officials, especially, would not like to have the cost of pensions made public, as they are likely in the multi-million dollar range.
I got more complete numbers from Santa Monica. On October 6, 2009, City Councilmember Kevin McKeown wrote me back as follows:
“I already (in 2007) had the City of Santa Monica Finance Department calculate the cost of the first four years of the war in Iraq, just to the City—and that came out to between $145 and $153.2 million. It included things other than direct federalization of employees, but clearly any jurisdiction could perform the same calculations.”
The next day, in response to my further inquiries, McKeown wrote,
“Not only can you share my earlier and more generic numbers on the TOTAL cost to our community of the war, attached please find a spreadsheet that is very specific about the payroll cost of the federalization of Santa Monica city employees in the most recently completed fiscal year. Over half a million dollars out of the payroll budget of just one small city of about 90,000!
As this City document includes the names of affected employees, I’d ask that it be treated as a resource and not directly published.
I also consulted with a retired attorney with experience in federal courts about suing the federal government to recover these costs. Here are excerpts from his appraisal of the situation.
“. . . [F]ederal courts have express jurisdiction to entertain suits against the federal government: the Court of Claims, for example, in addition to the district courts. . . .[I]n some specific instances jurisdiction has extended to suits by individual states arising, for a recent example, over federal regulations dealing with abortion counseling and similar issues which accompany an entity’s receipt of federal funding. However, such efforts have been declaratory in nature, not injunctive or compensatory. You can imagine that the latter two forms of relief would be likely to be more restricted than the former because they would impact the conduct of the federal government, or its purse, directly, whereas the former—declaring a practice or regulation improper—might not be as directly and immediately intrusive upon the conduct of government. Accordingly, in your discussion of such an issue, or in your pursuit of prospective remedy, it would be soundest if you couched your expressions in terms of seeking a court’s declaration of the responsibility of the federal government to reimburse, rather than a suit for dollars of reimbursement or for a decree forbidding uncompensated deployment.”
What I am hoping is that an investigative journalist will take a look at this. I cannot see why the city and county would not be able to give real numbers such as Santa Monica has. Overtime worked to cover for positions held vacant due to deployments should be fairly straightforward. Calculating pension costs would be more complicated but not more complicated than other calculations that city finance makes.
One thing is perfectly clear in all this: There is a lot of money involved.