As cities across the Bay Area grapple with budget cuts and deficits spurred—or in some cases, worsened—by the pandemic, massive salaries in one South Bay city have drawn public scrutiny.
In Santa Clara, salaries in the city manager’s office have topped the list for government worker pay in California. According to public records, City Manager Deanna Santana had the highest base salary of any city manager or administrator in California in 2020, clocking in at more than $448,000 thanks to an 11% raise she received from the Santa Clara City Council shortly before the pandemic.
Santana also had the second highest total compensation package at $709,446. For comparison, San Jose’s interim city manager, Jennifer Maguire, was hired at $347,600, with a total compensation package of $453,000. San Jose’s population is ten times that of Santa Clara’s.
Santana’s employees also hold some of the highest salaries in the state. In 2020, three assistant city managers, including Ruth Shikada, had salaries exceeding $300,000, which put them near the top of the pay scale.
Santana did not respond to a request for comment about compensation in her office. Santa Clara spokesperson Lon Peterson told San José Spotlight that the latest adjustment to Santana’s salary occurred in Jan. 2020. There has been no adjustment or increase since then, and the city discontinued her housing allowance of $3,750 per month, he said.
Santana has strong allies in Santa Clara who have defended her hires and subsequent compensation. Mayor Lisa Gillmor is on record calling her a “virtual miracle worker.” Her high salary has also been justified as necessary because the city manager is responsible for overseeing the utility Silicon Valley Power and the 49ers stadium.
But the high wages for city administrators come at a time when Santa Clara is grappling with unprecedented financial instability.
Peterson told San José Spotlight that forecasted shortfalls increased from $13 million in January 2020 to $42 million by the January 2021 forecast. The city approved budget actions that reduced its deficit to $29 million, and further cuts are expected to bring it down to $17.6 million by fiscal years 2023-24, he added.
“The increase in the city’s general fund deficit has primarily been driven by the drop in revenues associated with COVID-19, with the largest impact to the Transient Occupant Tax category,” Peterson said, adding that other affected revenue streams include sales tax, property tax and interest earnings.
Facing a severe financial crunch, the Santa Clara City Council tried to cut funding for police and fire services. This move provoked strong protest from the Santa Clara Police Officers Association, which filed a complaint with the state. Ultimately, the city reduced its cuts in the budget approved in June.
As Santa Clara continues to look for ways to shrink its deficit, Santana is adding another high-paying job to her office.
Following Santana’s recommendation, the City Council in May approved a new assistant director position in Community Development, the city’s equivalent of a planning department.
The move was unusual for several reasons. The planning job didn’t appear in the 2021 budget, and it first appeared on the consent calendar where the council approves numerous items with a single vote and no discussion. Santana also added the position to the council’s agenda just a day after she granted a $35,000 raise to Planning Manager Reena Brilliot, who also received a new title — assistant to the city manager.
Brilliot received three raises in three years that brought her salary from $142,000 to $227,000.
Several residents criticized the hiring process for this new role during a public hearing in May.
“The (city) has already been called on the carpet once (because of) the cronyism that goes on in the hiring process in the city of Santa Clara,” said a commenter named Jean. “And the closed recruiting process and the bringing in of the ‘friendlies’ has been an ongoing problem.”
Another commenter, Laurie, echoed the concerns.
“It would be real nice to see it open to the public,” she said. “And the salaries are already enormous, right? So it would be nice to see it open to everybody.”