2008-10-09 / Top News


The lowdown on what you are paying your public officials
BY ROGER WILLIAMS rwilliams@floridaweekly.com

So you think your government officials are getting rich.

You think they're hauling in the big bucks and working bankers' hours.

You think, perhaps, that every time you see litter in the park, or no cop to catch a speeder, or the county manager shaking hands and grinning at a public function, or a building going up where you don't want it (or a building not going up where you do want it), somebody's not manning the helm of the ship of government.

Well, maybe. But not likely, say the top officials in county and city government here. The demands of their jobs almost universally require long hours (50 or 60 is ordinary and sometimes on the low side), tightened budgets, a reduced staff and the competing needs now of almost 350,000 residents, according to county estimates.

True, they get paid for it, and paid well by many standards. Most of them make more than twice the personal per-capita income of people working in Collier County. That figure was cited at $49,492 in 2005, according to U.S. Census statistics, which ranked Collier at 37 among the top 50 counties in the United States (almost 4,000 counties exist from sea to shining sea).

A North Carolina study in 2007 showed a median family income in Collier County of almost $70,000, with a median household income running below that at about $61,000.

In a comparative glance at city and county officials' annual salaries — which you can see listed below — Florida Weekly discovered that most make at least $100,000, except some elected officials such as commissioners and council members.

In the city of Naples, for example, the mayor and council members are considered part-time workers — very part time, judging by their incomes of $17,500 (council members), or $30,000 (mayor).

County commissioners, on the other hand, are expected to work hard for their public and their money but they, too, fall short of the coveted $100,000- plus mark.

How are their incomes determined? Florida legislators decide the pay for elected people in all 67 Florida counties — apparently the legislators who like seemingly convoluted formulas.

The legislature compares the number of people living in Collier (now about 337,000), the number of people arriving in Collier (estimated to be about 68,000 more, for a total of 405,000 by 2012), and the pay of state government careerists.

From that unpredictable mix, they determine that Collier's commissioners — to name five of the 10 elected officials in the county — should be paid $75,756, or about $8,000 less than their counterparts to the north, in Lee County.

Lest you think that the long hours and hard work of many officials mean that they're better people than everybody else, perhaps you should recall the words of Barbara Ehrenreich, a Florida Keys resident who writes about the working poor in "Nickeled and Dimed."

"Personally, I have nothing against work, particularly when performed, quietly and unobtrusively, by someone else. I just don't think it's an appropriate subject for an ethic," she says.

Job requirements

If the hours and the demands do not meet the criteria for an ethic, they certainly appear to require skill, talent and brains — or put in the more contemporary bureaucratic vernacular, they require multi-tasking.

Merely listening to senior staffers in county government try to describe their responsibilities can be dizzying.

"I have domestic animal services, parks and recreation, libraries, museums, veterans' services, and housing and human services — that's affordable housing," explains Marla Ramsey, Collier's division administrator for Public Services, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and doesn't faint dead away at the prospect of long days or seven-day weeks.

"I have the university extension, which is the department that, with the University of Florida, does educational activities as outreach, like commercial horticulture, ag, 4-H, the Florida neighborhoods and yards program, and master gardens," Mr. Ramsey says. She continues, "I'm the liaison for the health department and I interface with that director and state health employees. And I do cost zone management, which is a fairly new department dealing with a lot of issues in the estuary and beach re-nourishment, reefs, Gulf boating and boats we have to remove, along with construction projects, dredging and monitoring and modeling of the passes."

That takes a full-time staff of 400 on paper, although 25 percent of those jobs are "frozen," which means they aren't filled if workers quit or retire.

For that, Mr. Ramsey earns $119,403.

Joe Schmitt, the division administrator for Community Development, keeps just as many balls in the air as Ramsey. A career soldier and retired Army colonel who also worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, he holds three master's degrees. Schmitt describes what he does in general terms, this way:

"A lot of what I do is not taxpayer dollars, but service. For example, I'm last person between (the developer) pushing dirt, and the community. So the community demands enforcement and mandated, controlled growth.

"But the developer-applicant is screaming for a building permit. They would love to drive by and throw their plans through the window, and by the time they drive around again, be approved.

"A lot of people believe industry rules the roost, but industry feels like they're far too regulated. And my job is to balance that. I call it the 'Goldilocks' factor; it's got to be just right."

A self-described Type-A personality, Mr. Schmitt can function in that job without holding resentments or feeling he's overworked, he says. And his wife can put up with the long hours and the demands because she learned to as an Army wife.

For that, Mr. Schmitt receives $133,455.

The highest paid person in the city or county is Jim Mudd, the county manager. A West Point graduate who also retired at a colonel's rank from the Army (as did Public Utilities Administrator Jim DeLony, which is why they sometimes refer to government here as "Fort Collier"). Mr. Mudd is beloved by his workers, many say — in part because he leads by example.

Tight times, and the effect that has had on workers, led him to announce a freeze on himself recently. "I plan to decline any merit pay/adjustment to stay consistent with the rest of the county employees," he told the local newspaper.

Mr. Mudd's salary is $182,032, for which he manages a county defined economically by a budget for Fiscal Year 2009 of $249 million in the general fund (that's $81 million less than it was three years ago, officials say), and $367 million in the capital budget.

Only the new superintendent of Collier schools, Dennis Thompson, who will manage a budget of just over $1 billion, makes more money, at $240,000 — up $33,000 from the $207,000 paid last year to the superintendent.

Public and private; apples and oranges

Often, people say those in the public sector make a lot less than those who hold comparable positions in private life.

Most officials, however, recognize that the two are different, and comparing them is like comparing oranges and calamondins.

"Sure, maybe I could make more in private life," Mr. Schmitt says. "But I chose the public life, I chose to work here. Not out of altruism so much, but because it's what I know and love."

But no doubt about it, private corporate workers can sometimes do what local government officials never can: They can get rich.

When Health Management Associates, based in Naples, hired Gary B. Newsome recently to head the organization that owns and operates 56 hospitals in the U.S., it agreed to pay the new president and CEO $900,000 per year, with a $1 million bonus if he remains in the job until the last day of 2009, plus a $500,000 signing bonus and other benefits.

But Mr. Newsome will never be able to say, "I served," perhaps; he'll only be able to say that he worked.

What they make

>> Collier County Manager, Jim Mudd:
Collier County Division Administrators:
>> Public Utilities, Jim DeLony, $136,773
>> Transportation, Norm Feder, $136,686
>> Community Development, Joe
Schmitt, $133,455
>> Public Services, Marla Ramsey,
>> Clerk of Circuit Court, Dwight Brock:
>> County Tax Collector, Guy Carlton:
>> Property Appraiser, Abe Skinner:
>> Supervisor of Elections, Jennifer
Edwards: $112,418
>> Collier County Sheriff, Kevin Rambosk:
>> County Commissioners: $75,756
>> County Attorney: $175,000
>> Airport Authority Director, Theresa
Cook: $104,547
>> Naples Mayor: $30,000
>> Naples City Council members:
>> Naples City Manager, A. William "Bill"
Moss: $177,000
>> Naples Director of Planning, Robin
Singer: $110,364
>> Naples Director of Police and Fire Services,
Thomas Weschler: $129,000
>> Superintendent of Schools, Dennis
Thompson: $240,000
>> School Board Attorney, Richard Withers:
>> School Board Members: $36,228
>> Marco Island Police Chief, Thom Carr:
>> FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw:
>> 20th Judicial Circuit Court Judges
(50): $145,000
>> State Attorney, Stephen Russell,
>> President & CEO, Health Management
Associates, Gary D. Newsome: $900,000, with
a $1 million bonus if he remains in the position
until Dec. 31, 2009, plus a $500,000 sign-on
bonus and other benefits.

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