The Public Eye: Retiring Placer County doctor wears two hats, makes big money

Placer County’s Dr. Richard Burton was the region’s highest paid public official in 2012, earning nearly $340,000. Throw in his benefits, and his total compensation reached nearly $460,000.

Burton wasn’t doing just one job, according to Nancy Nittler, the county’s personnel director. He held down two key Placer County posts as public health officer and director of the Health and Human Services Department. After seven years in the health officer post, he added the HHS director title when the previous director left a decade ago.

Burton, who is retiring this month, was recently honored by county supervisors with a plaque and commemorative coin.

“It certainly saved money overall,” Nittler said. The county will spend more than $528,000 annually between the two people replacing Burton.

The Placer County doctor is one of 22 city and county employees in the Sacramento region who earned more than $250,000 in total pay last year, according to a Sacramento Bee review of data from the State Controller’s Office.

In addition, the 22 highest-paid employees received, on average, about $63,000 in retirement and health benefits. All told, the 22 employees earned $7.5 million in compensation last year.

Most of the big paychecks went to employees who cashed out significant amounts of unused leave as they retired. For example, the region’s second highest paid public employee in 2012 was Sacramento County’s outgoing airports director G. Hardy Acree. Fresh off the opening of the new terminal at Sacramento International Airport, Acree earned $309,501 in wages and another $51,664 in benefits. He retired in December 2012.

Placer County’s Burton was easily the highest paid in the region. He made $257,000 in regular pay and another $82,000 in “other” pay, according to the Controller’s Office. In addition, the county paid $120,400 toward Burton’s retirement and health costs.

An effort by The Bee to reach Burton late Friday was unsuccessful.

Nittler said Burton put in long hours but did not elaborate about how he handled the work of two people.

Phil Ozenick, a former Roseville city councilman and longtime gadfly, questioned the arrangement.

“I’m wondering if he can handle two jobs,” Ozenick said. “It’s hardly a good thing to try to do two jobs over a long period of time because one is going to suffer.”

Bob Blymyer, a longtime Sacramento Regional Transit employee who now heads the Sacramento County Taxpayers Association, said working two jobs comes with the territory, but it rarely lasts a decade as was the case with Burton.

“It’s not like they are actually working two jobs where they are working 80 to 100 hours (a week),” he said.

Placer County Executive Officer David Boesch said he’s been happy with how Burton performed in the dual arrangement.

“Dr. Burton is a medical doctor who is uniquely qualified to have served Placer County as both director of health and human services and public health officer. His expertise, background and dedication allowed him to do both jobs, and do them extremely well,” said Boesch in a statement.

With Burton retiring this month, the county will move to a more traditional structure with duties split between two hires. On Dec. 30, Jeffrey Brown takes over as the director of health and human services after serving in the same capacity for Nevada County since 2005. His will earn $191,000 in base salary plus benefits.

Effective Jan. 6, Dr. Robert Oldham takes over as county health officer after working as the medical director and interim health officer for Fresno County. The post comes with a base salary of $246,000, plus approximately $91,000 in benefits.

Despite the high compensation paid to some public sector workers, total payroll among city and county governments in California fell from 2009 to 2012 after tax revenue plummeted, and average wages lagged the rate of inflation, according to the state Controller’s Office database. That held true in the Sacramento region with Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado counties’ total payroll declining between 2009 and 2012. Most local cities also saw payrolls decline as well.

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