David Spady

Public outrage over lavish government employee compensation and pensions is becoming more heated as new revelations about excesses seem to crop up every week. The latest: Newport Beach, California, where some lifeguards have compensation packages that exceed $200,000 and where these "civil servants" can retire with lucrative government pensions at age 50.

Newport Beach has two groups of lifeguards. Seasonal tower lifeguards cover Newport’s seven miles of beach during the busy summer months. Part-time seasonal guards make $16 to $22 per hour with no benefits. They are the young people who man the towers and do the lion’s share of the rescues. Another group of highly compensated full-time staff work year-round and seldom, if ever, climb into a tower. According to the City Manager, the typical Daily Deployment Model in the winter for these lifeguards is 10 hours per day for four days each week, mainly spent driving trucks around, painting towers, ordering uniforms and doing basic office work—none are actually manning lifeguard towers.

Like many communities across California, the city of Newport Beach is facing the harsh realities of budgeting with less revenue after housing values and the stock market plummeted. Now the city’s full-time lifeguard force has finally come under scrutiny. Next week the city council will decide if cuts are needed to the full-time lifeguard force where last year the top earner received $211,000 in pay and benefits, including a $400 sun protection allowance. In 2010 all but one of the city’s full-time lifeguard staff had annual compensation packages worth over $120,000.

Not bad pay for a lifeguard - but what makes these jobs most attractive is the generous retirements. These lifeguards can retire at age 50 with full medical benefits for life. One recently retired lifeguard, age 51, receives a government retirement of over $108,000 per year—for the rest of his life. He will make well over $3 million in retirement if he lives to age 80. According to the City Manager, a new full-time guard costs less to hire than what is spent on this one retiree. The city now spends more taxpayer dollars on retired lifeguards than it does on those who are working.

Reports of excessive pay and generous pensions have fueled a debate across the nation over union influence on government spending. Government unions were able to take full advantage of the good old days when surpluses were plentiful and the economic future was bright. They effectively demanded politicians agree to contracts for higher union wages and benefits. Creating a situation that was simply not sustainable over the long-term.

David Spady

David Spady is President of Media and Public Affairs Strategy based in Camarillo, California.