Water reclamation district salaries average nearly $100,000

 
By Jared Rutecki
Better Government Association
Posted10/17/2016 7:40 AM

Managing sewage and flood control might not seem like the most glamorous job in Illinois, but the financial rewards can be substantial, a Better Government Association analysis finds.

At nearly $100,000 a year, the average salary for employees of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District ranks near the top of public agencies in the state, higher than Cook County, Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Housing Authority.

 

Other indicators, though, demonstrate a reduced burden on taxpayers despite rising salaries. The district in 2016 is charging property taxpayers in Cook County less to run day-to-day operations than it did seven years ago.

In 2009, the gross property tax levy for the district was $242 million. In 2016, it had declined to $227 million. That's in contrast to a 30 percent increase in taxes between 2001 and 2010, an earlier BGA report found.

As of March 2016, the average employee at MWRD made almost $98,000 a year, according to data compiled by the BGA.

There were 658 employees earning $100,000 base salaries or greater as of March, which is 35 percent of the workforce at MWRD. That is an 85 percent increase from 2012, payroll data show. The number of employees earning more than $200,000 rose from 14 to 26.

Twenty-two MWRD employees will earn a higher base salary in 2016 than Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ($216,210), and 58 will earn more than Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ($170,000).

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Annual pay will climb even higher this year when overtime is taken into account. As of August, overtime payments were made to 240 employees with six-figure base salaries, according to district figures. An additional 126 employees will earn more than $100,000 in 2016 with overtime payments included.

Through Aug. 21, MWRD paid employees a total of almost $2.9 million in overtime, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Executive Director David St. Pierre said a reduction in the size of the workforce, which was around 2,100 in 2011, contributed to the increase in overtime. By this year, the head count had been reduced to less than 1,900, records show.

"It's less expensive to pay overtime than to hire new full-time personnel," St. Pierre said. That was a similar rationale used by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in recent years to address police staffing needs with overtime rather than new hires.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

St. Pierre credits staff reductions and other efficiencies for the district's ability to reduce the property tax levy.

But even as the number of employees decreased, overall payroll costs continued to climb. St. Pierre said the salaries are a result of jobs at the district requiring a high level of skills and advanced degrees.

On the payroll, 285 employees work in engineering and most of those positions require a four-year degree, he said. Another 130 employees have environmental science expertise, and half those positions require a graduate degree.

Contracts covering 775 union employees represented by 16 different unions at the district also contribute to higher pay, he said.

This year, St. Pierre will make $288,169. He is the highest-paid employee at MWRD.

Over the decades, the district developed a reputation for being a patronage haven staffed by the politically connected. In the early 1960s, the BGA exposed corruption at the agency then known as the Metropolitan Sanitary District.

St. Pierre said MWRD is not a patronage refuge.

"The district is not one of those organizations," he said.

However, there are family connections at MWRD. Donna McGowan-Watson, daughter of board Vice President Barbara McGowan, and Audrey Avila, daughter of chairman of finance Frank Avila, are both expected to receive $99,293 salaries from MWRD in 2016.

• Jared Rutecki can be reached at jrutecki@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9032.

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