Nice payday for top Westlands officials

        It is said that bureaucracy has two rules: (1) survive, and (2) expand. Certainly, the phenomena of expanding bureaucracy extends beyond federal and state agencies. It reaches down to the humblest of special districts in California, including water districts, which operate as their own mini-municipalities. The biggest federal irrigation water district in the nation is a good example.

       Westlands Water District’s 600 growers may have faced hard times in the recent drought but a survey of salaries for the district’s employees, provided by State Controller John Chiang’s office, shows they are among the best paid irrigation district officials in California. Westlands General Manager Thomas Birmingham makes $350,004 a year, plus benefits, expenses and a state pension program funded by CalPERS. For comparison purposes, the governor of California and its 37 million people makes $212,179. The Controller’s figures are for the calendar year 2009, the latest numbers available.

         Birmingham is an attorney and has acted as attorney for the district on occasion but the Westlands website currently lists the current General Counsel as Craig Manson, who was not on the 2009 list of employees. Manson’s salary, if he is salaried, is not available.

           Westlands Assistant General Manager Dave Ciapponi makes an annual salary of $216, 674. Chief Deputy General Manager Jason Peltier, a former lobbyist for the Central Valley Project contractors and an Interior Department water official during the Bush Administration, makes $185,004 a year. Susan Ramos, a former U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official who is now Westlands’ Deputy General Manager for Resources, makes $165,000 a year. James Snow, Deputy General Manager for Water Policy, makes $156,000 a year. Deputy General Manager for Resources Tom Glover makes $190,000 a year. The total for the salaries of these top six officials is $1,262,682, plus expenses, perks (cell phones, cars, etc.) and benefits.  

          The big salaries don’t stop at the top administrators. Westlands has a Deputy General for Public Affairs who makes a remarkable $175,000 a year. Until recently, the position was held by a member of a prominent Westlands farming family. The District’s Director of Finance makes $138,000 a year. The Westlands supervisor of customer accounting makes $98,708. The Supervisor of Resources (whatever that is) makes $95,008.  

            There is even a $40,000 a year salary for a caretaker at the Northern California fishing resort, Bollibokka, on the McCloud River, which Westlands acquired in early 2007 for over $30 million. Westlands bought the trophy trout resort in case the Bureau of Reclamation ever raises Shasta Dam, which would flood out the fishing resort. Because Westlands is a public agency it must file the salaries of its employees with the Controller’s Office.      

              Westlands has a Supervisor of Electrical Maintenance, a senior electrician, five electricians, and two electrician apprentices. The salary for these nine employees comes to nearly half a million dollars, excluding benefits. Why the district needs nine electricians is not immediately clear. Westlands, in 2009, had 112 employees (and nine openings), which means there is one employee for every five growers in the district, which started out in 1952 with only a handful of employees. 

               If there are salaries or income for the Westlands Board of Directors they were not listed at the Controller’s website. Total annual compensation for the 112 Westlands employees in 2009, at the height of the drought, reached over $6 million. Farmers may have suffered but District employees did not.