Public transit employee: $458K salary plus $1.2m home-loan concession

posted at 5:00 pm on May 1, 2011 by J.E. Dyer

If you had to guess, you’d guess this was in the San Francisco Bay area – and you’d be right. The official in question heads the San Mateo County Transit District, which runs trains and buses, and, like all public transit systems, is always in the red.  This means that when state and federal money bail local transit out every year, it’s tax dollars from across America that make executive compensation like this possible.

For a glimpse of the federal dollars being pumped into metropolitan transit, see this summary of the $270 million in Federal Transit Administration grants to California transit districts under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as Obama’s stimulus package. The San Mateo County Transit District received funds from 18 grants for a variety of purposes, from buying new buses to refurbishing track, updating electrical power infrastructure, and upgrading an operations control center. And that’s just the stimulus package; there are routine FTA grants made every year.

Of course, reducing one official’s salary and perks wouldn’t have covered all these costs.  On the other hand, it would pay for some firemen or sheriff’s deputies, whose services are at the top of the list of things taxpayers actually want from the government. Or – here’s a thought – the difference could just be left in the bank accounts of the taxpayers.

Transit Guy’s compensation package isn’t the worst offender out there.  The California state controller, galvanized by the discoveries in tiny Bell last year, has uncovered even higher salaries for publicly-funded jobs around the state.  A number of them are in public health care, such as the $873,598 in compensation received by the CEO of the Washington Township Health Care District. One case involved the CEO of a municipal water district who was paid more than $583K in 2009.  Wildly overpaid water district officials are something of a trend in California; the state controller found a number of water district officials being paid over $350K a year.

But managers of public infrastructure are not out on this limb alone.  The presidents and chancellors of public universities are very highly paid.  The president of the University of California system received $828K in total compensation in 2008 – and he was topped by his counterparts in Ohio and Washington.  The base salary for a University of California system chancellor is $450K.

K-12 education is its own source of high pay, as school officials in New York and Illinois have found.  Who wouldn’t want to bring in $386,868 a year as a school superintendent on Long Island, or more than $400K in a school district in Illinois?  Average classroom teachers, who don’t make nearly that much, are not the issue here.  The bloated salaries of administrative officials are what have been metastasizing in recent years.

The comparisons are illuminating, among those who get their salaries from the taxpayer.  Transit Guy is making his $458K, plus benefits, in San Mateo County (where the median household income was about $69K in 2009).  Meanwhile, the sheriff of San Mateo County made $197K last year, and has to get along without a $1.2 million home-loan concession.

North of San Mateo County, in San Francisco, the mayor’s annual compensation is scheduled to be $252K in 2011, although the mayor probably won’t take all of it.  For comparison, the mayor of Houston made $209K last year.  The base salary for Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, is $227K.  The police chief of Los Angeles is paid $307K.  President Obama is paid $400K a year.

State governors are paid less than all these officials.  The highest paid governor, Andrew Cuomo of New York, will receive $179K in 2011, less than half the heroic salary of the school superintendent from Long Island.  Jerry Brown of California, with a shade under $174K, makes less than the mayors of his state’s three largest cities.  Rick Perry of Texas, at $150K, also makes less than his big-city mayors.

Members of the US Senate and House earn a base salary of $174K today.  What they, the president, and the state governors have in common is their exceptionally high exposure to the public.  They face reelection often and have strong name recognition.  By contrast, the public often has no idea it has public transit CEOs and water district officials on the payroll.

A reasonable public also understands that its military officers, public safety officials, and even many local politicians in elected office – who also face recognition and accountability on a regular basis – are professionals who typically have to live on their public-service salaries.  Mullen and Petraeus are a bargain, given the weight and scope of their responsibilities.  The police and fire chiefs of major cities are certainly not overpaid – and if they were, the local media would never stop talking about it.  It’s the largely faceless administrators in education, utilities, health services, and public infrastructure – the public employees filling jobs no one thinks about, and many have never heard of – who can manage to fly under the radar while being paid six, eight, or ten times what the average taxpayer is bringing in.

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

This post was promoted from GreenRoom to HotAir.com.
To see the comments on the original post, look here.


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the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as Obama’s stimulus package.

Also known as the Publicly-Funded Obama Re-Election Campaign.

itsnotaboutme on May 1, 2011 at 5:04 PM

Are there any sane Califoriniatonianites left who still fail to comprehend how their state became such a cesspool? I would run, RUN from that state if I were still living there.

Bishop on May 1, 2011 at 5:10 PM

I’m not so sure chancellors belong in the group, particularly if they are good at getting alumni contributions.

John the Libertarian on May 1, 2011 at 5:10 PM

I would run, RUN from that state if I were still living there.

Bishop on May 1, 2011 at 5:10 PM

I would, but the weather is so great and the chicks are so hot.

John the Libertarian on May 1, 2011 at 5:11 PM

The base salary for a University of California system chancellor is $450K.

Shame on you! “Its for the children!”

GarandFan on May 1, 2011 at 5:19 PM

I would, but the weather is so great and the chicks are so hot.

John the Libertarian on May 1, 2011 at 5:11 PM

So hot, in fact, they will melt your popsicle.

Ted Torgerson on May 1, 2011 at 5:20 PM

A large school district superintendent job is one of the best ever.They get hired,negotiate a contract,don’t live up to the performance and bam the board runs them off and has to pay the contract off.The superintendant moves on to another large district and does the same thing.Viscious circle and great if you can get it because it is all tax payer money.

docflash on May 1, 2011 at 5:24 PM

“The girls are frisky in old Frisco
A pretty little chick wherever you go.”

–The Rivieras

Emperor Norton on May 1, 2011 at 5:24 PM

I wonder why we’re in such a mess?

Seriously, between the people who fled and the people who stay home because “their vote wouldn’t count in California anyway,” we’d have a different senator and governor. It’s not like the vote was 100% liberal.

Seriously, if you ran away, at least stop bragging about abandoning territory to the left.

Merovign on May 1, 2011 at 5:25 PM

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as The No Liberal Democrat Left Behind Act.

Jaibones on May 1, 2011 at 5:29 PM

Unbelievable, the further these people get from the nuts & bolts of providing a service the further their salaries are from the realities of common sense compensation.

fourdeucer on May 1, 2011 at 5:34 PM

Crooks, all of them.

Jaibones on May 1, 2011 at 5:40 PM

Unbelievable, the further these people get from the nuts & bolts of providing a service the further their salaries are from the realities of common sense compensation.

fourdeucer on May 1, 2011 at 5:34 PM

Thanks for “getting” it, fourdeucer.

J.E. Dyer on May 1, 2011 at 5:51 PM

Thanks for “getting” it, fourdeucer.

J.E. Dyer on May 1, 2011 at 5:51 PM

I’m not sure this is entirely fair. Put yourself in the place of these people; say you have worked your tail off trying to provide excellent service for decades and you finally work your way to the top. You don’t get bonuses, and you don’t get stock options.

I’m all for lowering the salaries and pensions of middle managers and other custodians, but you can’t attract top talent by offering peanuts.

John the Libertarian on May 1, 2011 at 5:58 PM

…you can’t attract top talent by offering peanuts.

John the Libertarian on May 1, 2011 at 5:58 PM

Then don’t. Unload the uneconomic “services” for which, when provided by government, the compensation to management bears no relation to either the performance of management or the value the consumer places on the service.

Are you seriously suggesting that there exists a market condition in which a school superintendent must be be paid $411K in order to ensure that the schools are good? If we look into that particular situation in Illinois, will we find out that the schools in question are performing better than schools run by a superintendent who is paid only one quarter that amount?

It is ridiculous from any reasonable perspective to suggest that a transit chief who never has to balance revenues and costs — whose enterprise is always, 100% of the time, bailed out by government subsidies — needs to earn $458K plus outsize benefits. This guy is NOT doing the job of, say, an airline CEO.

But my opinion only matters because Transit Guy can only be paid $458K a year, plus benefits, as long as the taxpayer keeps picking up the tab. The actual “libertarian” thing to do would be to get the government out of transit and let the market decide how much Transit Guy’s services are worth. In San Mateo County, I’m betting it’s not $458K plus benefits.

J.E. Dyer on May 1, 2011 at 6:09 PM

The only thing liberals will take from this is, how overpaid the military is.

Howcome on May 1, 2011 at 6:14 PM

Average classroom teachers, who don’t make nearly that much, are not the issue here.

J.E., I’m not so sure I agree with you there…

From http://www.mackinac.org/14584:

The total compensation of a West Bloomfield teacher grew 173 percent over an 11-year period, going from $47,346 to $129,637, according to information that was presented at a school board meeting in December.

The teacher’s salary started at $31,881 in 1999-00 and grew to $85,836 in 2010-11. Meanwhile, insurance payments climbed from $9,309 to $19,304 per year, and retirement contributions jumped from $3,717 to $16,854 per year.

Jimi on May 1, 2011 at 6:37 PM

These systems need to be introduced to the form of contract used at the federal level: the one year renewable for up to four years, with no other compensation.

You get decent pay, but if you fail to perform your contract is not renewed.

If you want decent executives in the public sector the top job is not about pay but performance. Set base pay at twice the highest senior civil service level. Then put in incentives for additional performance: better grades for schools, on-time service for public transportation, quality of service assessments for trash pick up… for every percent that is done better the individual gets a bonus. When the stats drop, they get fired and a percentage of their pay is removed for poor performance.

That is the way to get a responsive administrative side of things: fire until competence is found.

No long term contracts.

Set base standards.

Reward for good performance, dock and fire for bad performance.

The other way is to convert the highest level, longest time in service civil service person over to executive level and make them fireable under the same regime as an outside hire, and strip them of all the benefits garnered under the civil service system. This starts to eliminate dead-wood at the highest level, and most expensive level, of the civil service. If you have done the job for a long time you should know a lot about running the place… and as everyone can see if a good job is being done they can determine their chances of getting bumped up: they can quit or get bumped. A high level civil service person should not fear the executive level, will have the sword over their head for performing, and can always opt out of VOLUNTARY CIVIL SERVICE whenever they want. A good executive that knows the ropes, the poor performers and where the skeletons are will get respect from the organization and be feared, as well. Does wonders for morale, that, when your section chief might become boss of the place some day… and if you stay around long enough that just might be you. This will start to clear out higher level deadwood when an organization is foundering as individuals start to realize they might have to try and lead the mess they are in. The competent will tend to stay, the incompetent leave as they know they will have a limited time to fix things.

There are ways that government can do this without being locked into high cost contracts with golden parachutes. That means cutting the crony cycle and finding people who want to do the job, and aren’t after the pay. Pay for performance, incentivize good performance and fire as necessary to find it. Its amazing how good executives see that contracts like that work to their benefit as governments will start to up the pay and bonuses over time, and then revert back to the base contract with someone new.

ajacksonian on May 1, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Most of the people with those kinds of salaries are politically connected. They will always lay off people at the bottom to protect themselves. I see it myself in higher ed in CA.

The only solution is to get government out of all these areas, but I don’t think it’s possible. It’s too far gone.

PattyJ on May 1, 2011 at 7:26 PM

This means that when state and federal money bail local transit out every year, it’s tax dollars from across America that make executive compensation like this possible.

What a scam. The Dems talk about taxing the rich, but I guarantee these people will never pay more in taxes. They’ll just give themselves a raise through loan guarantees for housing or other perks to compensate for a loss in income.

redridinghood on May 1, 2011 at 7:54 PM

K-12 education is its own source of high pay, as school officials in New York and Illinois have found. Who wouldn’t want to bring in $386,868 a year as a school superintendent on Long Island, or more than $400K in a school district in Illinois?

I have a feeling Illinois may be the first to implode.
Here’s a letter from an Illinois state senator that has had enough.

http://hillbuzz.org/2011/04/29/state-senator-roger-keats-kisses-illinois-goodbye/

redridinghood on May 1, 2011 at 8:19 PM

At first it’s difficult to draw comparisons to the private sector. Yes, John the Libertarian on May 1, 2011 at 5:58 PM, top talent wants more than peanuts. I doubt that a capable manager of a transportation authority is also a good politician or pursued their MBA desiring to be politicized in their career. I also doubt that someone trained in educating students is likely to have strong management skills that are specific for keeping a school district within the annual or long-term budget plan. The problem with school administration and public transportation management is that they become politicized and once that fire is started the top wage earners become scrutinized with little regard to performance, but more about wage rate. The issue is probably not essentially wage rates as I’d expect they are a trivial percent of annual gross dollars, the issue is lack of performance and a sole delivery of failure. These “in” folks need to be traded out for achievers. The achievers need to have an environment to work removed from politics to become profitable.

ericdijon on May 1, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Those in public service should expect lower salaries than those in the private sector as we are providing a service to the taxpayer who often makes far less in the private sector. Of course, the bottom workers (teachers, police, firefighters, clerks, so on) are the ones who normally feel the wrath of the “fiscally conservative” politicians (and their supporters), but their well-placed pals are ignored and go on enjoying their outrageous compensations.

The same BS exists in the corporate world as well, and those who say that that doesn’t affect them, and that a company has the right to embezzle itself out of business, hasn’t been paying much attention over the last thirty years. When an established company goes under, it has far-reaching consequences, and we’re starting to see the cumulative effects of this.

Dr. ZhivBlago on May 1, 2011 at 9:15 PM

If these are all public positions, the salaries should be posted publicly. Instead, you never hear about this stuff.

Regarding the UC Chancellors; I know the campus chancellors also get a free house with the job. They do a huge amount of entertaining. It’s all essentially recruiting (professors and researchers) or fund-raising (schmoozing with donors). So, they spend a lot of money and they get those nice houses for a reason. It still smacks of a certain amount of corruption, though.

trigon on May 1, 2011 at 9:41 PM

Forgot the exact stat, but there’s something like 10000 former public employees in Cali making six figures a year from their pensions.

strictnein on May 1, 2011 at 9:47 PM

Someone should make an spreadsheet of their political contributions. Gee, I wonder whose party benefits. The Chicago Machine: Now Installed in a Country Surrounding You.

wordwarp on May 2, 2011 at 4:00 AM