Eye on public wages: Part 1

Year in and year out, county residents pay roughly $321 million in property taxes that go toward essentials such as staffing police agencies, teaching our children and maintaining our roadways. This is the first in a five-part series.
Alex Doty
Dec 28, 2013

All of our public agencies – from the local libraries to city government – have a cost of doing business, which is largely comprised of salaries and benefits for their employees. That is the common denominator among all public bodies.

Of the $321 million, $123 million goes directly to wages for dedicated public servants.

Considering that wages and accompanying benefits take up such a large chunk of taxpayer dollars, this is a number worth scrutiny, noted James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  

“These tend to represent the majority of a government’s expenses,” he said.

The Tribune, through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and computer data analysis, crunched the numbers and determined just where the bulk of your taxpayer dollars go.  This series is a look at how publicly paid salaries stacked up throughout our community during the last full calendar year.

Cities and villages

City and village employees in the Tri-Cities make an average of $36,184 in wages – not counting benefits – per year.

The City of Grand Haven cut checks to their employees totaling $6,061,725 in 2012, with the average salary of a municipal worker coming in at $48,885.

The highest-paid official in the city was City Manager Pat McGinnis, who made $110,749.

The Village of Spring Lake comes in next. A total of $1,124,749 In salaries and wages were taken from its coffers in 2012. The average wage was $24,994.

The highest paid person in Spring Lake was Police Chief Roger DeYoung, who earned $79,654.

It was an odd year in terms of top wages for the village, as Village Manager Ryan Cotton left mid-year and was replaced by Chris Burns. The two earned a combined wage of $72,798 for 2012.

In Ferrysburg, the total city payroll was much less than those in Grand Haven and Spring Lake Village. In 2012, $448,339 was spent on salaries and wages in Ferrysburg, with the average worker making $10,675.

The highest paid worker in Ferrysburg was City Manager Craig Bessinger, who made $76,537. This was followed by Public Services Director George Dunning Jr., who made $64,896; and Clerk Debbie Wierenga, who made $52,930.

Townships

Grand Haven Township spent $1,644,999 on salaries and wages, for an average per-employee spending of $11,115.

Township Manager Bill Cargo was the top earner at $102,202. Following behind him were Assessor Denise Chalifoux and Public Works Director Mark VerBerkmoes, who each earned $82,221.

In Spring Lake Township, $1,278,685 was spent on wages, with the highest-paid employee being Township Manager Gordon Gallagher at $81,053. Following behind Gallagher was Public Works Director Ronald Brondyke, who made $67,082. In third was Clerk Carolyn Boersma, who made $64,531.

In Robinson Township, the total payroll for employees was $252,666, for a per-employee average of $3,158. Township Assessor Joe Clark is the highest-paid public employee in all of Robinson Township, with a salary of $28,038.

In Crockery Township, the total salary outlay was $210,943, with the highest-paid person being Fire Chief Gary Dreyer, who made $27,797. Its average employee wage is $3,906.

Schools and libraries

Local public school districts — Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Fruitport — employ more than 1,064 employees, who each make on average $50,125 per year.

In GHAPS, the top-paid employee was Superintendent Keith Konarska, who banked $174,806 in 2012.  Grand Haven school employees average about $62,944 for a total payroll of $26,436,686.

In Spring Lake, the average salary for their employees is $60,354, for a total payroll of $10,501,643. The highest-paid salary in the district is Superintendent Dennis Furton, who made $144,812.

In Fruitport, the total salary for all employees in the school district was $16,694,573, for an average of $32,799 per employee. The highest-paid employee was Superintendent Bob Szymoniak, who made $120,964.

Libraries are another place of learning and also reported their publicly funded salaries to the Tribune.

At Loutit District Library, the total salary outlay in 2012 was $784,467. The highest-paid employee was Library Director John Martin, who made a total of $63,632.

Across the river at Spring Lake District Library, officials there reported an annual payroll of $528,942. Like Loutit, the highest-paid position at the Spring Lake library belongs to its director, Claire Sheridan. Sheridan made $63,132 in 2012.

County government

County government and operations aren’t to be missed considering that they oversee policing in many of our outlying townships, and a multitude of services for our entire county.

In Ottawa County, the top-paid employee was Community Mental Health Medical Director Elizabeth Garcia-Janis at $197,486 annually.

In all, the total spent on salaries for Ottawa County employees is $48 million per year. This also happens to be the largest payroll in all of the entities surveyed. This equates to an average of about $37,033 per county employee.

At the Ottawa County Road Commission, $6,275,137 was spent on salaries and wages in 2012, for an average road worker payout of $44,822. The highest-paid employee at the Road Commission is Managing Director Brett Laughlin with a salary of $98,989.

While Ottawa County pays district and circuit court judges a set amount, they also receive funds from the state. The Legislature sets district judges’ total salary of combined funds at $138,272, while the circuit judges’ salaries are set at $139,919.

The payroll process

Salaries and wages vary widely among our local public employers.

“There are no laws that govern how they pay their employees,” said Catherine Mullhaupt of the Michigan Township Association. “That is up to the township board to determine the compensation of employees of the township.”

There aren't set-in-stone guidelines as to what cities, counties or villages pay, either.

“It’s quite a variety," Mullhaupt said, noting that much of the pay differences depend on that community's tax base and size.

Fruitport’s superintendent Szymoniak said in the education realm, there are several factors that go into determining wages.

“Union salaries are negotiated between union officials and the Board of Education,” he said. “Several things are taken into account when negotiating salaries including: the state of school finances, local and regional salary comparisons for like school districts, etc.”

Non-union employees are given a contract upon hire, which includes their rate of pay and benefit levels.  They may negotiate their salary at that time if they so desire, but the board has no obligation to adjust the contract it offers a potential employee.

“The employee may ask for an increase to his/her salary over time, but generally non-union employees are treated as a group,” Szymoniak said. “Due to the school fiscal crisis, some of these employees have not had a pay raise since 2007.”

Benefits, economy hit bottom lines

Public policy expert Hohman has been keeping an eye on local government wages and said they aren't the biggest worry at this point.

“We’ve seen at all levels in Michigan government that wages and salary payments have been relatively stable, but benefits costs have substantially increased,” Hohman said.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, total payments for state and local government employee benefits increased 24 percent from 2004 to 2012, despite a substantial drop in employment.

“Total wage and salary payments for state and local government employees, however, only increased 7.7 percent over the period,” Hohman added.

He calculated that, in 2009, there was a $5.7 billion disparity between government and private-sector employee benefits.

With cuts in revenue sharing, losses in property tax revenue, and increases in benefit costs, Michigan Municipal League spokesman Matt Bach said that there has been a need for many communities to make significant cuts in recent years.

“It is affecting everything,” he said of the recent economic crisis. “I think that each community has to determine what is best for them.”

Townships took a hit earlier than other municipalities.

"(They) got hit kind of early with the whole economic downturn,” Mullhaupt said. “Before things bottomed out, townships lost a significant part of their revenue when they lost revenue sharing.”

Ottawa County officials say they’ve fared better than most when it comes to the fiscal crisis that hit many communities.

“We have our frugal Dutch forefathers to thank for that,” County Administrator Alan Vanderberg said.

According to Vanderberg, the county’s other postemployment benefit costs — an accounting term referring to the liabilities related to providing health insurance benefits for retirees — is just over $800,000. By comparison, Muskegon County’s is $71 million.

“It just shows a big difference in how we’re managing pensions and retiree health care,” he said.

Vanderberg noted that not only is the county delivering a good, quality product, but it is doing so at a lower cost than its neighbors.

At Grand Haven City Hall, experts said salaries and wages are a part of the bigger picture when it comes to budgets.

“Local governments don’t have the ability to print money or have a deficit situation, so as costs increase, they have to find ways to deal with it,” City Finance Director Jim Bonamy said. “The most significant impact on local governments I can think of is not on the expenditure side, but on the revenues lost from federal and state sources.”

At one point, Bonamy said the state gave upwards of $5 million in revenue sharing to the city, and now they only get about $800,000.

“That’s one of the reasons many governments are under duress,” he said.

To deal with this, Bonamy said there have been measures taken such as staff reductions in various departments and the reliance on technology.

“We’re doing some things faster and more efficiently through software, but people are the reason things work,” Bonamy said. “We’re seeing in Grand Haven a continued need and desire for services, and in Grand Haven we’re willing to pay for those costs.”

See Monday's Tribune for Part 2 in the series: "Tri-Cities challenges."

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