A photo of the county complex on Emeline Street.

Five of the highest paid Santa Cruz County employees in 2023 were Behavioral Health staff. Many employees work from the county’s Emeline complex. (Michael Warren Mott — Santa Cruz Local file)

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly included a Santa Cruz police sergeant and the Scotts Valley School District superintendent on the Top 20 salaries list because of a reporting error. Two Santa Cruz city firefighters have been added in their places.

SANTA CRUZ >> Four county psychiatrists were the top paid public employees in Santa Cruz County among city, county, fire and school district employees in the county in 2023, records state. 

The top 10 employees each earned more than $329,000 excluding benefits, and the top earner was paid $404,298, according to records.

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Santa Cruz Local requested public records related to employee salaries from the County of Santa Cruz, school districts, Cal Fire and other fire agencies, and the cities of Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Scotts Valley and Capitola. A list of the top earners does not include employees of UC Santa Cruz and other state and federal agencies in the county.

Transparent California and other websites also publish public employees’ salaries, but their data is often incomplete and outdated.

Administrators have said they must compete with surrounding counties and cities as they try to attract and retain workers. The salaries also reflect the high costs of living and housing in Santa Cruz County. 

We have to be reasonably competitive with the market,” said county spokesperson Jason Hoppin, “or we would not be able to fill those positions and deliver services.”

County of Santa Cruz salaries and trends

Twelve of the top 20 earners across the county work for the County of Santa Cruz.

  • The county spent $5.9 million on base salaries for its top 20 highest-paid employees in the fiscal year that started July 1, 2023, slightly up from $5.8 million the prior year. 
  • Most high-paying employees receive a cost-of-living adjustment each year, but not a raise, Hoppin said.

The top earner for the fiscal year that ended June 2023 was Dr. Robert Brown Jr., a psychiatrist who earned $404,298, including $307,744 in base pay plus $96,554 in other pay. Other pay can include extra pay for night and weekend work, lump sums to encourage employees to stay in Santa Cruz County, and stipends for bilingual or longtime employees.

County psychiatrists perform examinations, prescribe medications, and consult for county-run medical facilities and the Santa Cruz Health Center on Emeline Avenue. 

Although the pay is comparatively high, psychiatrists working for state and local governments “are making a lot less than they could down the street somewhere else” like Kaiser Permanente, said Tim Jenkins, a senior representative of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. Some psychiatrists could earn up to $50,000 more working in a private facility, he said. The union represents many private, state- and county-employed physicians and psychiatrists.

Working in county-run facilities involves caring for “people who are experiencing homelessness or multiple issues related to poverty, or from a marginalized community — they’re more difficult to treat,” Jenkins said. “It might be hard for people who make a lot less to understand, but these folks are turning down lucrative offers in other places in order to serve the community.”

Staff shortages

Brown and three other top earners work in the county’s Health Services Agency. The agency has struggled to hire enough staff, and was short more than 74 full-time equivalent workers in March 2023, according to a Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury report. 

“While we strive to provide competitive pay and offer a comprehensive benefits package, we are competing with wealthier Bay Area cities and counties and private hospitals who can afford to pay higher salaries,” said Sandra Hughes, a Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency spokesperson.

The struggle also reflects a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists, therapists and other mental health workers, Hughes said. As of 2023, half of Americans live in areas without enough mental health professionals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Health Workforce.

Santa Cruz County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios, who oversees county departments and heads the budget process, earned $351,612 in base salary and $365,342 total excluding benefits for the fiscal year that ended in June 2023.

Santa Cruz County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios earned $351,612 in base salary for the fiscal year that ended in June 2023. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local) 

Police and fire salaries

Seven of the top 20 earners work for Central Fire District, which operates seven fire stations and has about 120 employees. Property taxes fund most of the district’s expenses.

Like most firefighters and police officers across the county, much of their total pay came from overtime. Paying for overtime is less expensive than hiring another employee and paying for their benefits, said Central Fire Chief Jason Nee. 

Jason Nee became Central Fire chief in 2022, after Central Fire merged with Aptos/La Selva Fire in 2021. (Central Fire)

“But it’s not good for the workforce, right? We want a healthy workforce that can take time off and be with their families,” Nee said. Much of the overtime is due to employees picking up shifts from coworkers who are on leave or have been injured, Nee said. Nee earned $335,308 in total pay excluding benefits in 2023, according to records. 

Central Fire’s entry-level firefighter annual salary is $122,448 before taxes, records show.

Employees of Cal Fire CZU, Cal Fire’s Santa Cruz-San Mateo Unit, did not rank among Top 20 earners but have ranked near the top in prior news reports. Cal Fire Capt. Tyler Martin was No. 22 on the list, earning $294,494 in total pay excluding benefits in 2023, Cal Fire reported.

School superintendents

Scotts Valley Unified School District Superintendent Tanya Krause was the top-earning educator. She earned $297,377, according to school district records.

Outgoing Live Oak School District Superintendent Daisy Morales has faced scrutiny over her salary in recent months as the district faced budget problems and layoffs. For the fiscal year that ended June 2023, Morales was the fifth-highest paid school official in the county.

Half of the top 10 earners are Santa Cruz City Schools employees, including three assistant superintendents and a principal who earned more than several superintendents of other districts.

Data from the following agencies was included in this report. 

Local government

  • County of Santa Cruz.
  • City of Watsonville (including Watsonville Fire).
  • City of Santa Cruz (including Santa Cruz Fire).
  • City of Scotts Valley (including Scotts Valley Fire).
  • City of Capitola.

Other fire agencies

  • Ben Lomond Fire.
  • Boulder Creek Fire.
  • Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit.
  • Central Fire.
  • Felton Fire.
  • Zayante Fire.

School districts

  • Bonny Doon Union Elementary.
  • Happy Valley Elementary.
  • Live Oak.
  • Mountain Elementary. 
  • Pacific Elementary. 
  • Pajaro Valley Unified.
  • San Lorenzo Valley Unified.
  • Santa Cruz City Schools.
  • Scotts Valley Unified.
  • Soquel Union Elementary.

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Reporter / California Local News Fellow

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.