The State Worker

California should change law to give CHP officers smaller raises, report recommends

Careers ahead, CHP cadets finish training with traditional pre-dawn run

A pre-dawn 5-mile run was a sign of accomplishment for cadets graduating from the California Highway Patrol Academy. About 100 cadets made the run from the West Sacramento academy to the memorial honoring fallen officers Aug. 12, 2016.
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A pre-dawn 5-mile run was a sign of accomplishment for cadets graduating from the California Highway Patrol Academy. About 100 cadets made the run from the West Sacramento academy to the memorial honoring fallen officers Aug. 12, 2016.

Forty-five years ago, when California passed a law to give automatic annual raises to Highway Patrol officers, the pay structure might have made more sense than it does today, according to a new Legislative Analyst’s Office report.

For one, the state hadn’t yet adopted collective bargaining, which the rest of the state’s workers now use to negotiate annual changes to salaries and benefits.

And home prices hadn’t gone crazy in the Bay Area, San Diego and Los Angeles County. The 1974 law sets state Highway Patrol officers’ raises each year based on an average of local peace officers’ pay in those regions, now the most expensive in the state.

Based on the dramatic rise in home prices in those areas, the analyst’s office suggests the Legislature change the survey, adding lower-cost living areas, which would reduce officers’ annual raises. The office analyzed officers’ pay after the state recently reached a tentative contract agreement with the California Association of Highway Patrolmen.

“The formula effectively pays all Highway Patrol officers as if they worked in a high cost of living region,” report author Nick Schroeder wrote. “However, many officers work in regions far less expensive than the five local jurisdictions.”

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The automatic raises hamper the state’s ability to adapt to financial downturns, and they don’t leave room to temper pay increases when the department is having no trouble with recruitment, Schroeder wrote.

The report shows a combined 3,359 officers live in the Bay Area, San Diego and Southern California, while a combined 2,871 live in the rest of the state — including 959 in Greater Sacramento and 769 in the San Joaquin Valley.

Today, a typical home in the survey cities has a median price of about $800,000, according to the report.

The median cost of a typical home in areas where officers live, weighted for how many live in each area, is about $520,000, according to the report.

Carrie Lane, chief executive officer for the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, said more than half of CHP officers work in the high-cost communities that are represented in the salary formula. Many more, she said, live and work in other expensive cities along the Central Coast and Lake Tahoe regions.

She said the salaries and raises given to CHP officers are reflective of the competition government agencies face in recruiting among the “finite number of people in our society who seek law enforcement work in their careers in the first place, and who ultimately are deemed to be qualified for the work once background checks are completed.”

“We’re all trying to be competitive in compensation in order to recruit and retain the most highly-qualified and professional candidates. The CHP is no exception. They are a major law enforcement agency competing with other major law enforcement agencies for the same candidates,” she said.

The LAO recommended in 2007 that the state get rid of automatic pay increases. Schroeder’s report, issued Monday, acknowledges the formula has a “long-standing precedent” that might make it difficult to eliminate. He suggests adding lower-cost living areas as an alternative.

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A line chart compares home prices in the local regions used to determine California Highway Patrol officers’ salaries with the statewide average. The Legislative Analyst’s Office suggested the Legislature add lower-cost living areas to the survey, which would lower officers’ salary increases, bringing them more in line with costs of living where most officers live. Legislative Analyst's Office

If the state were to add to the survey the county of Sacramento and the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, Riverside and Stockton, the median home price in surveyed areas would drop to $560,000 — a closer approximation of expenses for Highway Patrol officers, assuming living costs correspond with housing costs, according to the report.

“Adding some lower-cost jurisdictions to the compensation survey could make the jurisdictions in the survey better reflect the living costs — and likely the labor markets — faced by a typical highway patrol officer,” Schroeder wrote.

In 2018, average annual regular pay for a CHP employee — including non-uniformed staff not covered by the state law — was about $92,000, according to a State Controller’s Office database. With overtime and other pay, the average rose to about $110,000. The average CHP employee’s benefits cost another $61,000, according to the database.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.