WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - At a time when local county officials have slashed millions of dollars to help balance their budgets, the Contact 5 Investigators searched through state records to find out where the bulk of your tax dollars are being spent on salaries – six figure salaries.
You might expect Palm Beach County's top officials to make big bucks like the Palm Beach County Administrator and Palm Beach County Attorney. But the Contact 5 Investigators searched through thousands of documents to determine how many others are making six figures and to find out who they are.
The results let us to an unexpected place.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Contact 5 Investigators obtained salary information through the Florida Retirement System (FRS) for the '10-'11 fiscal year.
They discovered 603 government workers in Palm Beach County made more than $100,000 according to the FRS.
They're salaries approved over the years by Palm Beach County Commissioners.
To get some perspective, Contact 5 Investigators compared the salary numbers with counties of similar size in Florida according to 2010 Census numbers and similar government structure.
According to state records, Orange County only has 163 government workers making more than $100,000 a year under their Board of Commissioners. Hillsborough County has even fewer, only 151 workers. Palm Beach County had more than six hundred people making six figures.
If you'd like to take a look at the FRS data yourself or search for a particular person working for any of the counties in our viewing area, click here. The salaries only include positions under the Board of County Commission. (Records show there are no workers under Okeechobee County's Board of Commissioners who make more than 100K.)
After crunching the numbers, the Contact 5 Investigators spent more than a week calling and emailing two of the counties longest serving commissioners to get reaction.
They didn't get a response. However, when they showed up at a commission meeting, they received an email from commissioner Burt Aaronson's assistant stating he would not be talking to them about the issue.
Hours later, he told the Investigators, "I think what you outta do is address this to Bob Weisman," Aaronson said. He also stated he didn't want to comment because he wasn't certain the numbers were accurate.
The Contact 5 Investigators then took the data to the Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman. It's part of his job to crunch the numbers.
"Why do we have so many people making so much money?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Dan Krauth.
"Well in our case a vast majority, probably two thirds of them, are in our fire rescue department," he said.
The Contact 5 Investigators then requested even more detailed documents from the Clerk & Comptroller's Office and discovered Palm Beach County has 469 people in the Fire Rescue Department who make more than $100,000.
According to data provided by the Orange County Comptroller, Orange County's Fire Rescue only had 83 firefighters who made more than 100K last year.
In comparison, firefighters in Orange County responded to about 86,000 calls last year and have about 1,200 workers. Palm Beach County fire officials responded to about 114,000 calls last year and have approximately 1,500 workers.
"It's hard to say why one department is different from another," said Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Steven Jerauld. "I think generally, it's expensive to provide fire rescue services," he said.
Jerauld said not only are the men and women first responders when it comes to fires and hazmat situations, unlike Orange County, almost every local fire fighter is also trained as a paramedic and a majority of their calls are medical calls.
"The compensation reflects that level of responsibility and, over time, certainly contributes to what our people earn. It's a necessary thing for us to maintain minimum staffing," Chief Jerauld said.
Without overtime, county records show more than 400 firefighters are bringing home six figure base salaries.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue officials said due to proximity, their department is more comparable to counties like Miami Dade when it comes to employee compensation.
The Contact 5 Investigators then requested records from Miami Dade that show they have 704 fire rescue workers making more than $100,000 dollars a year. That county has 1,914 workers and responded to 237,000 calls last year. Again Palm Beach County has about 1,500 workers and responded to 114,000 calls last year.
The findings come at a time when Palm Beach County officials are negotiating a new contract with the fire union. County officials are asking for a 22 percent reduction in starting pay for new workers.
"It's a bad idea," said Matthew Mierzwa, the attorney for Palm Beach County's fire union.
who has been negotiating their contracts for more than a decade, said instead of pay reductions they're proposing no pay increases for the next three years.
"We don't believe that cutting the salaries of firefighters will be beneficial either for the group itself or the county as a whole," said Mierzwa.
"Now there's a much larger pool of available applicants, you can still attract good quality candidates at a lower salary," said Merriman.
Cost of Living expenses are different in all of the counties mentioned, but according to the 2010 Florida Price Level Index there aren't major differences and the counties all within 2.5 percentage points of each other.