Out of Pocket

Costs of War Passed Directly to City and County

Paul Wellman

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 from Human Resources Manager Barbara Barker:

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.

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, which he cc’d to the supes and other county staffers.

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 did not calculate or even address the cost of providing pension continuity. 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!

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. I’ve consulted with a retired attorney who has experience in federal courts about suing to recover these costs. His initial appraisal was that the path of least resistance would be to seek 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.”

Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Central and Eastside branches are closed Mondays, as of mid 2010, in order to save $288,964 annually, including the cost of salaries, utilities, and supplies. And the Evening Lap Swim at Los Baños Pool is closed for the winter, to save the city $10,800.


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