Overpaid $266.5K city manager vs. library books

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Wonder why your local public library is underfunded? Overpay of top city officials could be one reason. Here’s an example from my hometown, Alexandria, VA. The city manager’s $266,508 salary and additional benefits are almost as much as the entire substandard budget for library materials. – D.R

Rashad Young: One of many overpaid city officials in the U.S.Rashad Young, hired at $245K and now paid $266,508 a year, is leaving as Alexandria’s city manager to become city administrator for D.C. In my hometown of 150,000, Mr. Young has been pulling down a bigger salary than that of Vice President Joe Biden, paid $230,700. Across the Potomac, he’ll make $295K in his new job.

I wish Mr. Young the best of luck helping Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser run the D.C. government, but I can’t resist raising the salary issue, and I fervently hope that the Washington media will follow up with questions for her. The story in this case is about civic values. Based on Mr. Young’s priorities in Alexandria, I do not think his hiring in Washington is a very auspicious sign for D.C. He appears to be in the same approximate salary league as the manager for Fairfax County, eight times our size in population. Annualized, the Alexandria city government’s total payments to Mr. Young with benefits and full car allowance included are around $350,000—just a little shy of the pitiful amount that Alexandria spends on books and other library content, far below the national average per capita ($2.50 vs. $4).

This issue extends far beyond the D.C. area. If the Washington Post or New York Times can do a national story on the inflated salaries of so many top city administrators in the context of public needs, such as those of K-12 kids and other library patrons, then so much the better.

Across the country, while ordinary taxpayers scramble to pay everyday bill and localities cut back on even essential services, mayors and city councils have splurged on managers as if they were recruiting NBA players.  Just in California, as of 2010, 16 managers were raking in more than $300,000 each. Their salaries, like Mr. Young’s, didn’t just surpass Mr. Biden’s. They also dwarfed those of U.S. senators and of even the best-paid members of the Senior Executive Service at the federal level. Alas, too many ‘crats in America’s local governments are 5’11” also-dribbles with Kobe Bryant-sized financial aspirations.

8369499081_014c5f4a2bYes, running a city or county demands skills and knowledge in areas ranging from business development to environmental matters. But mightn’t the International City Managers’ Association, founded 100 years ago this month, have been a little too successful at attending to the pecuniary needs of its members? Especially given the talk these days of “restoring trust in government”? The first year, the association spent all of $105. Even with inflation and membership growth considered, it’s come a long way, and the people in it seem to be thinking likewise about their own needs. Just how well can overpaid city administrators empathize with ordinary citizens, including smart, highly educated people earning a fraction of the top bureaucrats’ pay? Will distractions of the good life steal attention from official duties?

And how did this mess come about? I blame the confusion of the roles of business and government, which grew during the Reagan years and has only gotten worse. What happened to public service? How about the borrowed but oh-so-apropos wisdom from JFK’s inaugural address? “Ask not what you can do for yourself, ask what you can do for your country.” Have schools of public administration failed us? And should cities be recruiting MBAs to set their priorities? That’s the degree Young holds, and over the years, business school values have all too often overlapped with Gordon Gekko’s. Regardless of the shortcomings of the PA schools, perhaps they might be a better source of talent. Let the MBAs work under the PAs.

Gordon_GekkoWithin bounds, I’m all for big bucks for people who help give us an iPod or develop a life-saving new drug; yes, I understand the market for their talents—it’s global. I get it. I’m a capitalist. But believe me, Alexandria wasn’t bidding against the Japanese and Koreans for Rashad Young’s services. Also remember that international corporations can expand into new markets to help justify their CEOs’ pay.

Here in Alexandria, however, we’ve got only so many taxpayers to squeeze blood from, and I hope that our city council will cap the base salary of the next city manager at no more than $200K or so and avoid oversized benefits. The next manager should live very comfortably, but not extravagantly. A cap would tell applicants, “We actually want people to be in this for more than the money. We’ll give you recognition. You’ll be on the city cable TV channel almost as often as the mayor, and we hope you’ll stay here for years and be a cherished member of the community, recognized for the good you do. But darned if we’re going to fight a bidding war, only to see you move on and make way for someone even more overcompensated. We’re a city, not a career steppingstone. Please don’t step on us. Of course, other cities can outpay us. But we can reward you in other ways. If you don’t like that, then apply elsewhere. We love to screen out overpriced applicants.”

Am I too harsh in thinking that the Rashad Youngs of this world deserve a tad less, to reduce the burden on the taxpayers and maybe even free up a little cash for essential services and for those city workers who do happen to be underpaid? I don’t think so. When a city overpays its administrator, that creates ripples and causes people below to wonder, “How come I’m not getting mine?” It’s a rational question.

The ultimate result? Here in Alexandria, we’re looking at more tax increases, and meanwhile consider what suffers when we screw up our priorities. Alexandria is spending just $2.50 per capita on library books despite studies showing a strong connection between the number of books available and reading literacy, as well as the glories of recreational reading as a promoter of cognitive development and general academic achievement. I suggested that Mr. Young voluntarily give up a symbolic speck of his salary and agree to forgo near-term increases to free up money for books. No luck, despite his seat on the executive board of the Urban Libraries Council.

Genuine library boosters and booklovers probably carry more weight in Washington’s government right now than in Alexandria’s, given the increases in D.C. library resources in recent years and all the cuts and attempted cuts that we’ve suffered with Rashad Young as city manager, abetting like-minded people. I don’t see him as an imminent threat to the D.C. library. That said, D.C. advocates for the poor and middle class should still keep a close eye on the general priorities of both Mr. Young and Muriel Bowser. Oh, and while they’re at it, they should check out D.C. council salaries—among the highest in the nation, even though the members are only part time.

Footnote: Mr. Young’s $245K may have ballooned to $263,870. I am checking with the city to see if the figure in a letter to a local newspaper is accurate and up to date. Also go here for more details, especially about this job performance. Mr. Young seems to have sought—and gotten?—a 6.6 percent pay increase despite all the MBAish talk about efficiency and frugality.

Update, Dec. 10: This commentary now reflect the latest information helpfully provided by Alexandria Communications Director Craig T. Fifer in reply to my e-mail requesting relevant documents. According to Mr. Fifer, Mr. Young’s estimated fringe benefits of disability, life, retirement and health insurance total about $68,226 yearly. He also receives annual deferred compensation of $10,000 for his retirement account, per his specific arrangements with the city, along with an annual vehicle allowance of $7,200. Add all this to Mr. Young’s base salary of $266,508 as reported by Mr. Fifer, and annual payments are about $350,000, assuming Mr. Young would use the full vehicle allowance, which, however, is just a fraction of the annualized total. What does this say about the city’s civic and fiscal priorities? Ahead I’ll reproduce Mr. Fifer’s letter to me, and you can click here for a PDF of his hiring agreement and here for a Personnel Action Form showing his current salary. Notice the "ethics" reference in the hiring agreement? If the International City Managers’ Association cares so much about "ethics," why does it allow the Youngs of this world to command such outlandish salaries? What happened to the idea of "public service" and respect for citizen-taxpayers? If Alexandria follows my suggestion to hire Mr. Young’s permanent successor at a more reasonable cost, we can increase the library book budget by tens of thousands of dollars. Keep in mind that Mr. Young’s hiring salary of $245K was almost as much as the starting salary of the county manager of Fairfax—as noted, a much larger locality.

CRAIG FIFER'S E-MAIL TO ME

Mr. Young’s salary, benefits, and other forms of compensation are set by City Council, not by himself. I have attached Mr. Young’s employment agreement.

His current base salary (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015) is $266,508.32. City Council awarded a one-time payment of $9,327.76, effective July 1, 2014. In addition, per his original employment agreement, Mr. Young receives annual deferred compensation (a contribution to his retirement account) of $10,000, and an annual vehicle allowance of $7,200.

Mr. Young is also eligible for disability, life, retirement and health insurance coverage on the same terms and conditions provide to general full-time employees. The estimated cost of these benefits is 25.6% of the City Manager’s current salary, or approximately $68,226.13.

I have attached Mr. Young’s most recent salary adjustment documentation. You’ll notice that his salary went up 1% from the previous year, but this was an adjustment made to all employee salaries because an additional 1% was taken from each salary as a contribution to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) pursuant to a new state law.

Mr. Young did not request a 6.6% raise for FY2015 as stated in the letter to the editor you cited [from Townsend “Van” Van Fleet, president of the Old Town Civic Association—D.R.]. He did receive a 6.6% raise (approximately $16,420, resulting in a salary of approximately $263,870), but it was going between FY2013 and FY2014 (effective July 1, 2013), it was not part of the budget process, and he did not initiate it. The City Manager’s salary is budgeted at the average step increase for all employees, and his actual salary is set following his annual performance evaluation by City Council each June. Since the budget is adopted each May, the budget process has already concluded prior to the performance evaluation and there would be no reason for the City Manager to include his own salary in the February proposed budget even as a request or a placeholder. Finally, Mr. Young did not request the 6.6% increase at all. The first 1% was the annual VRS adjustment as I mentioned above for the following year, and the rest was the raise City Council decided to give him at their own initiative following his annual evaluation. City Council is free to give a raise of any amount, or no raise at all. In fact, for this year (effective July 1, 2014), Mr. Young received a one-time payment but no raise beyond the 1% received by all employees.

I hope this information is helpful. Please let me know if you need anything else.

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