SMUD chief made nearly $580,000 last year – among highest in California

Among the many well-paid public employees in the region, Sacramento Municipal Utility District chief executive Arlen Orchard stands out. He earned more than any other “special district” employee in the county and more than any other municipal utility leader in the state.

The CEO of the nation’s sixth-largest community-owned electric utility pulled in $579,391 last year, according to a trove of data released by the State Controller’s Office Tuesday detailing compensation for hundreds of “special district” public agencies around the state.

The new database offers a comprehensive look at salary and benefits for more than 159,000 employees that account for close to $9 billion in wages and $2.5 billion in benefits. The report looks specifically at special districts — government agencies created in local communities for specific purposes, such as utilities, transit agencies, water, fire and sanitation districts.

At SMUD, Orchard’s salary was $220,000 more than what was earned by the leader of his closest peer, Alexander Coate, chief executive of the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Alameda County.

Coate’s salary totaled $359,217; Herb Niederberger, general manager of the much smaller South Placer Municipal Utility District made $199,524; and the Southern San Joaquin Municipal Utility District’s Roland Gross took home $195,505.

What’s more, some of SMUD’s top brass accounted for five of the top ten highest-paid people employed by special districts in Sacramento County, out-earning some CEOs including the leader of Regional Transit.

SMUD just finished a top-to-bottom renovation of its Sacramento headquarters in East Sacramento. The five-year, $72 million project included restoring a mural mosaic by acclaimed artist Wayne Thiebaud.

A spokesperson, when reached, said under Orchard, a 25-year SMUD veteran, the $1.7 billion municipal utility’s performance has been “world-class.” SMUD officials said their rates are among the lowest in the state with consistent upgrades from rating agencies.

“Orchard’s compensation is considerably lower than many of his utility executive peers,” said public information specialist Christopher Capra. “His salary pales in comparison to the CEOs of neighboring investor-owned utilities who are paid approximately 20 times his salary. Furthermore, SMUD rates are approximately 25 percent lower than neighboring investor-owned utilities.”

The utility also disclosed a number of line workers and forepersons who earned salaries above $200,000 — which would be executive-level pay in some organizations. Capra said the steep income is a result of the long hours and overtime required to do the job, especially during winter storms. A damaged pole, for example, can take 6 to 8 hours to replace, he said.

“These positions are highly competitive among all utilities (including investor-owned utilities) and require SMUD to provide a competitive compensation and benefits package in order to retain excellent employees,” Capra said. “The 24-hour schedule provides for overtime compensation opportunities and is eligible for additional shift premium pay that is PERS reportable.”

State Controller Betty T. Yee noted that health-care related districts dominated the list of the highest earners among all special districts. All of the top 10 individual salaries among special districts were in health care. For example, the CEO of the Antelope Valley Health Care Authority in Lancaster earned $1.4 million in 2018.

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Mike Finch joined The Bee in July 2018 as a data reporter after working at newspapers in Alabama and Florida. A Miami native, he has been a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors since 2012 and studied political science at Florida International University.