August 2015.

It’s a great town when the lifeguards make up to $211,912 in compensation with multi-million dollar lifetime pension payouts. Secretaries to the city bosses make nearly $100,000, refuse workers make three times the national median wage, and 31 city employees out-earn every governor of the fifty states.
We all missed the memo in high school – that job posting for the City of Newport Beach, California. If we had only known, many of us would have packed our bags and headed west for wealth and fortune on the California beach – as a lifeguard.

The lifeguards of Newport Beach have garnered Hollywood fame, pay exceeding six figures, and multi-million dollar (90 percent of salary) lifetime pensions kicking in as early as 50. It seems akin to winning the lottery against the pristine backdrop of bikinis, beautiful sunsets, and the Pacific Ocean sands. Their union negotiated perks include $400 per year in sunscreen allowance.

In 2007, the FOX prime-time hit program The O.C. frequently showcased the Newport Beach lifeguards.

But local and national debate raging over the compensation and benefits of these lifeguard ‘captains and officers’ changed in the summer of 2014. That’s when a veteran Newport Beach lifeguard with fifteen years of experience drowned in ten to twelve foot surf while saving a distressed swimmer. It was a tragic event and the first lifeguard drowning in the one hundred year history of the beach.

In this May 15, 2011 photo, lifeguard captain Arn Van Dyk, left, directs lifeguard trainees in a swimmer-rescue drill during a training session for new seasonal lifeguards at Newport Beach, Calif. Newport Beach’s 13-member, full-time lifeguard crew has gotten skeptical reactions ever since the local newspaper editorialized about lifeguard salaries, benefits and overtime pay that in at least two instances top $200,000 as the city struggles to rein in pension costs. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Locally, in California, the lifeguards are viewed more as first responders and as such are handsomely compensated. In years past, the Orange County Register reported that Newport Beach paid its lifeguards up to $211,000 and $203,000 (2010). Data at shows in 2013 the “Lifeguard Battalion Chief” made $148,000 and four others earned between $101,000 and $113,500.

But in Newport Beach, it isn’t just lifeguards who are handsomely compensated. It pays its 1,180 employees very, very well.

Newport Beach has an estimated population of 87,000 residents and is the epitome of a wealthy enclave. Average household income exceeds $112,000 per year. The average home price is more than $1 million. As of 2009 it ranked as the eighth most expensive real estate in the country.

According to the data posted at, the city manager out-earns Gov. Jerry Brown with compensation of $248,891 plus another $63,000 plus in benefit costs – we assume that job doesn’t involve rescuing swimmers in dangerous surf. In 2013, 31 city employees earned more than any governor in the nation – including the Deputy City Manager ($207,658), Municipal Operations Director ($237,351), City Attorney ($241,081), Assistant City Manager ($198,707), Public Works Director ($189,417), and Community Development Director ($189,417), Recreation & Senior Service Director ($180,549), and many other bureaucratic positions.

A fire division chief – one of many ‘fire division chiefs’ – cost taxpayers $263,189.

The pay and perk largess even extends to secretaries and other rank-and-file positions. For example, the ‘executive assistant to the city manager’ makes $95,257. The ‘permit counter supervisor’ costs taxpayers $92,842, while ‘permit technicians’ make $81,180. The ‘Animal control officer’ cost taxpayers $88,165. Senior managers on the ‘street maintenance crew’ make $82,844; ‘grounds workers’ make $79,916; and even ‘refuse’ workers make up to $79,836.

Despite having a $273 million underfunded city pension fund, the city administrators don’t shy away from defending their lavish payroll. In 2011, the city council funded a $165,000 no-bid contract to study the ‘competitiveness’ of Newport Beach salaries vs. twelve other California communities. In 2013, the consultants delivered the verdict.

The results? Newport Beach administrators were, of course, under-compensated. In a city – and nation – that’s underwater, it just may be the ‘first responder’ lifeguards in Newport Beach who are earning their pay.

Note: Adam Andrzejewski is the founder of containing over 2.3 billion local, state and federal spending transactions. See your local salaries in California or across America in 34,000 communities – download our free ‘Open The Books’ mobile app for Apple and Android.


No, the phones in Aliso Viejo City Hall are not ringing off the hooks, unanswered. And no, the people in Laguna Beach are not being waited on hand and foot.

At least, not by city staffers.

An Orange County Register analysis of city workers per city resident shows that these two little burgs, which exist cheek by jowl in South County, are at polar ends of the municipal staffing spectrum.

Aliso Viejo is the most circumspect, with just one employee for every 2,498 residents, while Laguna Beach is the most sumptuous, with one worker for every 92.5 residents. Everyone else falls somewhere in between.

This wild divergence illustrates the difference between old and new, between “full-service” grande dames (with their own police, fire, marine-safety, library, recreation, etc.) and newfangled “contract” cities (which hire third parties to do such work and thus have dramatically fewer staffers on the books).

One might turn the equation around and conclude that this also means that city services cost the most per resident in Laguna Beach and the least in Aliso Viejo, which is pretty much the case, give or take myriad mitigating factors.

We’ll note here that older cities hate per capita comparisons like this.

“Not just apples to oranges, but apples to oranges to grapes to watermelon to kiwi,” said Brea spokeswoman Cindie Ryan.

Also, new cities stress that it’s not always “you get what you pay for.”

But first – to get all philosophical on you – this does bring up larger issues of governing.

“Do people care whether their trash is collected by someone who works for the city or a private company? Or, as Mao said, ‘It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.’ Should they?” mused Fred Smoller, professor of political science and devoted local-government watcher at Chapman University.

“What happens to a community when citizens are seen and see themselves as customers, and cities are solely service providers? Would you feel comfortable being pulled over by a cop that works for a private firm? There’s good and bad about contracting,” Smoller said.

The whole concept of contracting out city services was born in unincorporated Lakewood in 1954, as it fought off a “hostile takeover” from neighboring Long Beach. Lakewood incorporated, then contracted out most services to Los Angeles County, which had been providing them before the ruckus.

The “Lakewood Plan,” as it has come to be known, has been embraced by most new cities that sprang up in its wake. The financial advantages of such an approach are most pronounced when looking at cities’ long-term liabilities:

Grande dame Anaheim faces a gap of $560 million between what city staffers have earned to date for future retirement benefits and what the city has stashed away. Aliso Viejo’s liability is just $597,851 – almost a thousandth of that amount.


Folks will tell you that both systems get the job done.

“If you’re a resident of this city or a customer at the front counter, you don’t notice any difference,” said Aliso Viejo City Manager David Doyle. “Things work extremely well in Aliso Viejo.”

Aliso Viejo has a newfangled partner furnishing parks and recreation services, thus relieving the city of that duty: the Aliso Viejo Community Association, a master homeowners association.

The city’s maintenance, building and safety duties are outsourced, as well as police and fire services (to the O.C. Sheriff’s Department and the O.C. Fire Authority).

“One of the benefits of using contractors is that, when you need additional staff – like we do right now, with a lot of building projects coming on line – we’re able to bring them in to handle the growth spurt,” Doyle said.

Contract cities must still pay folks to provide those services, of course. But not having those workers on the city payroll translates into savings, particularly in the benefits arena.

John Pietig, Laguna Beach’s city manager, cautioned that this exercise shouldn’t be used to draw conclusions. Millions of people swarm his city in the summer, and that requires a host of municipal services that other cities don’t have to provide.

“In addition to police and fire services, the City of Laguna Beach provides lifeguarding, sewage, transit, dispatching, jail, building inspection, and animal control services,” Pietig said by email.

The story is much the same for Newport Beach. Residents should understand that they’re not the only ones shouldering the costs of city services, said Newport City Manager Dave Kiff – visitors pump money into city coffers from parking meters, hotels, restaurants and retail sales taxes.

And the cities must be prepared to handle the tourist onslaughts. “I can’t staff up or down my police department to just serve the nighttime population,” Kiff said.


Chapman’s Smoller suggests Aliso Viejo represents the future: Traditional city council-city manager systems morphing into public versions of homeowners associations, where all services are privatized.

“Electeds in full-service cities can’t pull this off – though I am sure they’d love to – because their public employee unions would be so in their face,” Smoller said.

Some might recall chaos in Costa Mesa after a new council majority issued pink slips to hundreds of city staffers in 2011, in an effort to outsource services and cut costs.

Labor sued. A recent settlement allows Costa Mesa to privatize some services in 2017, but blocks other outsourcing efforts for four years. The whole endeavor has cost the city some $2 million.

“The next stop is Sandy Hills, Georgia,” Smoller said. “The council hired a management company – CH2M-Hill – to run nearly everything. Cash-strapped cities find this very appealing.”

Contact the writer: [email protected]