The Public Eye

Health benefits boost board compensation at Sacramento area special districts

Most people elected to special district boards receive no compensation to oversee the agencies that provide services such as water or local park maintenance.

But some district directors receive annual salaries approaching $20,000 and health benefits for a position that has few requirements besides preparing for and attending meetings.

Of the nearly 1,000 special district board members in the capital region, about 70 percent received no compensation, The Sacramento Bee found in an analysis of 2013 salary data recently released by the California State Controller’s Office.

The other 30 percent, however, received an average of $4,300 in total compensation. All of the two dozen directors who received the most compensation – $15,000 or more – served districts in the Sierra foothills or around Lake Tahoe, in particular water districts with a long history of providing health coverage to board members and their immediate family members.

Most of the compensation for Alan Day of the El Dorado Irrigation District, the region’s highest-paid special district board member in 2013, was in the form of health benefits. The district paid $19,975 in health coverage for Day and some of his family members, on top of the $17,300 he received in wages, for a total of $37,275.

Day, owner of Ladybuglawn landscape-care service in Folsom, said in an email that his work for the board “is at best, a break-even proposition” considering the time it takes away from his business. He said he and his fellow board members have made progress toward cutting the district’s nearly $400 million debt.

Officials at districts providing board compensation said their directors have complicated and sometimes controversial jobs, especially when considering rate hikes or project financing. They also said compensation is needed to attract qualified candidates.

“It's a reasonable expense for the level of responsibility these people have. They must balance the needs of the community vs. the needs of the district and that’s not always easy,” said Richard Solbrig, general manager of the South Tahoe Public Utility District, which provides sewer and water service in South Lake Tahoe. “They get put in uncomfortable positions quite a bit.”

In addition to the district’s two regularly scheduled meetings each month, board members sometimes have to attend meetings for board committees or meetings of other agencies, Solbrig said. Some of them also attend water conferences in different parts of the state.

Officials at other districts with top-paid board members offer similar descriptions of the job.

The South Tahoe Public Utility District had four of the five highest-paid board members in the region in 2013. They each received $4,800 in wages, but the biggest expense came from health care costs, an average of $21,585 each.

Most of the districts that offer board compensation don’t provide health care. But the ones that do had the highest expenses for board compensation.

Solbrig said he isn’t sure why the South Tahoe Public Utility District provides health benefits for board members. “They’ve gotten health insurance for as long as I’ve been in the district,” said Solbrig, who started in 1990. “It’s a decision the board made a long time ago.”

Jesse Saich, a spokesman for the El Dorado Irrigation District, said health care is a reasonable expense to attract qualified board candidates. Board members who have health insurance through other means don’t use the district benefit, he said.

The Placer County Water Agency once provided health coverage to its board members, but had to stop the practice when the agency started contracting for benefits through CalPERS, which only allows agency employees to receive benefits, said Einar Maisch, the agency’s general manager. At the request of some board members, the agency is looking for other options to provide board member health insurance, he said.

CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco said state law precludes most local elected officials from joining the system. The law was passed in the early 1990s in an effort to prevent elected officials from “pension spiking,” using a highly paid elected position in an effort to raise retirement benefits.

Carol Cramer, one of two retired schoolteachers who regularly monitor the Placer County Water Agency board, said she thinks health insurance for board members would be excessive. However, she supports the board’s $11,400 a year salary, saying board members often attend meetings across the state to better learn their role.

“Special districts kind of get lost out there,” she said. “They just don’t get the oversight they need.”

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.