Who’s worth their salary?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 24, 2002

How much money others make is always of interest to people. Whether it’s the $20 million Adam Sandler pulls down for a film; the $250 million contract the Texas Rangers coughed up to get Alex Rodriguez or the comparably slave wages that people who protect our lives and property or educate our children get, such things are fascinating to most of us.

What are a person’s services worth? A good question, and a hot topic of conversation locally in the wake of publication of the large percentage pay increases received by Suffolk City administrators that were published in The Virginian-Pilot last week.

Many were aghast to see the 6 to 16 percent pay increases received by the people who run the city as well as the salaries that ranged from a low of about $50,000 to City Manager Myles Standish’s $108,000. Most fell between $60,000 and the mid-$90,000s.

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That’s certainly a decent wage, but it’s hardly comparable to what top officials of a private company with more than $200 million in revenues – which is how much the City of Suffolk takes in – would receive. In other words, the salaries are not too high. Management is a tough job. The hours are generally long. And it’s not like these people are pulling down $100,000 bonuses and stock options in the Constant’s Wharf hotel project. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that the entire event is a public relations fiasco for city officials that’s likely to become a morale issue for those – like police officers who went so far as to take out billboards in an effort to embarrass the city over the low wages they receive – who feel they were stiffed so that more money was available for management raises. Had the increases been in line with the 4.5 percent other city employees received, it probably would not even be an issue.

The reason for opening up the vault, according to the paper, was to retain quality people, the same line used by private companies that are on the defensive over executive compensation. The thinking is that these talented individuals might be apt to leave Suffolk government service to pursue careers with other cities or in the private sector. Normally I agree with that. You pay what it takes to get and keep the people you want.

I don’t know if anyone at city hall has peered out their window into the real world lately, but it’s a pretty tight job market out there. Jobs, particularly those that pay at the level we’re talking about here, are not hanging from the trees. Were someone in city government who earns $90,000 a year to leave over not receiving a 6 or 7 percent increase, I’d be curious to see how many quality resumes would be received for people who would settle for such a salary. I imagine it would be quite a few, based on the fact that companies have been downsizing and laying off quality managers left and right for much of the past two years.

If a city wants to compete with the private sector for employees, hotel guests, or whatever, then it should operate on the same principles as private sector companies. In that world, managers and executives are rewarded for increasing the bottom line – getting shareholders a better return on their investment.

In a government environment, the taxpayers are the shareholders and increasing their bottom line would seem to translate to cutting out waste and gaining efficiencies and using the savings to lower the tax burden or increase the level of services. I don’t know about any of you, but I just got my tax bill last week and it does not appear to have been reduced by from 6 to 16 percent, and the trash collector still won’t pick up a boxes that I leave at the end of my driveway.

Until that happens, in order to avoid such controversy in the future, Suffolk would be well advised, at least from a public relations perspective, to keep management pay increases in line with the percentages other employees get. And when it does happen, we’ll be happy to pay whatever it takes make those happy who made it possible.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald.