Editorial: Don't invite competitive escalation of administrator pay
As teenagers look to college and the type of career they want to pursue, they might want to consider becoming a municipal administrator in the suburbs. Sure, the job has long hours and a lot of stress, but it carries some impressive financial perks, too, especially in towns trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, in terms of salaries and benefits.
A recent Daily Herald analysis of 74 suburbs in six counties showed most suburban municipal administrators are receiving raises this year. Some of those increases are $6,000 and more, including several as large as $10,000.
It is a public sector job, in which 10 of the 74 municipal administrators studied have a base salary of more than the $180,000 paid to the governor of the state. And that doesn't include additional income from bonuses and allowances for houses, cars and clothes.
Such healthy pay increases are a bit startling considering many suburban residents are still out of work and many others still have pay freezes or are getting by on far smaller raises. They also come at a time when local property taxes that many residents find are already too high show no signs of decreasing.
We're not disputing the important responsibility administrators assume for day-to-day operation of their municipalities. They tackle complex issues, are charged with balancing budgets in the face of falling revenues and must answer to the egos and political whims of seated mayors and boards.
However, we have concerns with the size of many of the increases outlined in the analysis and the system for determining those raises. At least part of that system, the Daily Herald's Suburban Tax Watchdog reporter Jake Griffin learned, is based on what's paid in neighboring suburbs. That practice sets unnecessary and expensive precedents.
"Instead of comparisons to the pay in other towns in the area, I think the way to do things is look at your budget and look at the demand there is for the job," said Steve Stanek, managing editor of the Budget & Tax News at the nonprofit Heartland Institute.
That is sensible thinking. Many of the municipal officials Griffin interviewed readily admitted that what neighboring towns pay administrators is a key factor in determining the salary for the job in their community. Some officials said they didn't need to be the top-paying municipality but didn't want to be the lowest. Others said they didn't want their administrator to leave for greener pastures, even though there was no immediate threat of that happening.
As with any job, salary and benefits for a municipal administrator should be based on what a municipality can afford to pay and what the is job worth. Too much emphasis on comparisons invites a constantly escalating arms race in administrative salaries, and towns need to keep in mind the taxpayer who ultimately is paying the bill.