As part of our Sunshine Week coverage, we published a database of public payrolls for many of the municipalities in our area. It includes information on more than 20,000 town, city, and county employees, and how much money they earned for the years 2005-2010.
The task of collecting this information was arduous. My colleague Meaghan McDermott led a team of maybe a dozen reporters in the effort to collect the data, and she has written about the challenges we faced since we started this project last October.
Whenever we write about public payrolls, we get a lot of responses from readers, and they invariably fall into two categories. The first are those who think it’s inappropriate for us to publish the salaries of people who work for local government. They feel that it’s an invasion of privacy… one reader even called our reporting “morally reprehensible.”
I couldn’t disagree with that sentiment more strongly. Journalists have a responsibility to hold government accountable for how they spend taxpayer money, especially in trying economic times. As we reported on Sunday, payrolls account for 65-75 percent of local budgets. As more and more public scrutiny turns towards deficits in state and local budgets, it’s vital to understand where that money is being spent. The recent scandal in Bell, California highlights just one type of abuse that can occur without the kind of independent oversight that only journalists can provide.
The fact of the matter is that payroll information for local governments is already available to the public in a variety of formats, including through the website of the Empire Center for New York State Policy at SeeThroughNY.com.
Another reader complained that despite all the talk about public sector workers being overpaid, the database really showed how little she and her co-workers made, contrary to what seems to be public opinion. That illustrates to me exactly why publishing this information was so important. It offers some actual data to the pundits and talking heads who are railing about the problem of government spending.
Before I became a newspaper reporter, I was an editor of the Baseball Encyclopedia, and during my tenure Major League players went through a labor dispute that shortened two seasons and cancelled a World Series. The players’ union has always been strong and successful in advocating for their members, and one of the first things they did when they formed was to compile and publish the salaries of their players. It helped to dispel the public perception that ballplayers were all millionaires, and showed that many of the game’s biggest stars were underpaid compared to their peers. One ballplayer told about how, after a season in which he was named an All-Star, he was forced to take a paycut because his owner complained that his salary was already way more than anybody else on the team was making. When the salaries were published , he learned that eight of his teammates made more than he did – and discovered that several of them had heard the same speech from their owner.
That’s what Sunshine Week is all about, the idea that making information public helps us know what is really going on, and to make better decisions.
The other type of email we get from readers when we publish a set of payroll info asks why we didn’t publish more: why didn’t we include teachers or school administrators? Why didn’t we include firefighters from outside the city? Why didn’t we include state workers? Why didn’t we include CEOs of non-profits?
I think we probably have reported on all of those folks in the past, and if we haven’t already we probably should in the future. But adding them all to a single database is something we’re just starting to do, and we’ve got a lot more ground to cover.