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.