- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The D.C. Council’s conflict with Mayor Anthony A. Williams over giving Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey a $25,000 pay raise marks a rare moment of salary restraint during an eight-year period that has seen explosive growth in city government salaries.

The Washington Times reported last week that several council members said they would not approve the Ramsey pay raise, even if Mr. Williams deletes language in an emergency resolution that would allow him to give $34,000 raises to other top managers.

The mayor has said the language in the legislation can be changed to address the concerns of city council members, but he has vigorously defended the growth in top-end salaries since he took office in 1999.

“I think we’re getting our money’s worth,” Mr. Williams told The Times in April, and the mayor responded to some of the criticism in recent days by saying that salaries for top managers like Chief Ramsey need to go up — if not now, then “perhaps two or a few years from now.”

Chief Ramsey, even without the raise, is the seventh-highest paid city employee — one of 575 workers citywide earning more than $100,000

In 1995, the District had one six-figure salary on the payroll. Today, one in every 68 city workers makes over $100,000, accounting for more than $60 million of the District’s $1.6 billion payroll.

As city leaders consider cost-cutting and revenue-generating ideas to deal with impending budget deficits, the elite of the District’s 34,000-strong work force continue to reap high salaries — thanks in large part to federal efforts to save the city from financial ruin eight years ago.

“The District, with a long history of neglect, needed to buy talent. Whether or not we got what we paid for is another issue,” former federal Budget Director Alice M. Rivlin, who was instrumental in the growth of D.C. salaries, told The Times recently.

In 1995, only City Administrator Michael C. Rogers cleared $100,000, making $115,700, more than any other D.C. government worker, including Mayor Marion Barry.

That year, the District faced a $722 million budget deficit and could not provide even basic services such as trash collection and transportation for seniors.

The previous administrations of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and Mr. Barry had left city finances in such a shambles that Republican congressmen with oversight of the District — Reps. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia and James T. Walsh of New York, and Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont — threatened to revoke home rule. (In 2001, Mr. Jeffords became an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.)

Instead, Congress created an unpaid five-member panel to monitor the city’s revenues and spending. That panel, officially named the Financial Responsibility Management Assistance Authority, was commonly known as the D.C. financial control board.

President Clinton appointed Andrew Brimmer, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, as chairman of the financial control board, which included Constance B. Newman, Stephen Harlan and Edward A. Singletary. Mrs. Rivlin, the federal budget director, served as an adviser.

When Mr. Brimmer took charge of the board in the summer of 1995, he quickly determined that the mismanagement and corruption that had led to the city’s fiscal ruin stemmed from a key fact: The city’s 38,000 government workers weren’t being paid enough.

The argument that the city had overspent its budget because it hadn’t spent enough on its workers seemed counterintuitive. But Mr. Brimmer still defends his assessment.

“I initiated the increases [in salaries] after reviewing the salaries of comparable positions in the private sector and the surrounding jurisdictions, and it was clear [the District] was far behind,” Mr. Brimmer said in a recent interview with The Times.

He said Congress had set a ceiling on city government yearly salaries at $115,700, the salary earned by Mr. Rogers.

And under the D.C. Charter, no city government employee could earn more than the mayor or exceed the salary cap without an exemption by the D.C. Council.

The mayor’s $90,705-a-year salary had been set to match the federal pay schedule’s compensation for Level III managers. Mr. Barry each year waived a portion of his salary and was paid $87,949 annually.

Mr. Rogers’ salary was one of about a dozen council-approved exemptions and the only one equal to the federal pay schedule’s compensation for Level IV managers.

Though the control board members were not paid, they ensured that their staff — and eventually other D.C. government workers — were well paid, based on the federal government’s pay scale.

“One way to remedy [the low salaries] was to bring people in for our staff employees and pay them competitively. Our ceiling was based on the federal pay scale and no higher than [Level IV]. … We also allowed our other staffers to reach that ceiling but not exceed it,” Mr. Brimmer said.

The Times first reported in January 1996 that seven of the control board’s 25 staffers earned $100,000 or more annually. The salaries of city agency directors had been capped at $81,855.

The difference in pay between control board staffers and city workers generated resentment in the Barry administration. Jim Ford, then-clerk for the D.C. Council’s education committee, was quoted as saying that control board staffers “with whom we are working — and frankly, educating — are younger, less experienced and making a lot more money.”

Only three D.C. government workers — Mr. Rogers, Inspector General Angela Avant and Mr. Williams, the newly appointed chief financial officer — had crossed the six-figure threshold in 1996, each earning the $115,700 limit.

The control board moved to alleviate D.C. workers’ resentment by steadily increasing salaries across the board.

Mr. Brimmer’s three years as control board chairman were defined by his edict “you have to pay people what they’re worth” — an oft-repeated sentiment today in D.C. government.

By 1998, when Mrs. Rivlin became control board chairman, the number of city workers earning more than $100,000 had grown to 64.

Mrs. Rivlin adhered to her predecessor’s rationale for increasing salaries.

“I don’t think the salaries are out of control. I think it was then and is today necessary to attract good people. When Dr. Brimmer took over, it was necessary to pay people more to do the work,” she recently told The Times.

But the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, disagreed with the control board in 1998.

The GAO criticized the board for overpaying several top officials, including Chief Management Officer Camille C. Barnett, who had been hired in December 1997 at a salary of $155,000, and the board’s executive director, John W. Hill Jr., who was being paid $122,700.

Congress had increased the D.C. salary cap to $118,400 in 1996. But Mr. Brimmer in 1997 had allowed Mr. Hill and control board General Counsel Daniel Rezneck to be paid $122,700 and $121,900, respectively. GAO auditors found that Mr. Hill and Mr. Rezneck also had received lump-sum payments in excess of $12,000 each as retroactive locality pay, a federal salary supplement based on wage changes in a region’s private sector.

Mr. Brimmer also had given excessive raises to several city agency heads, the GAO found.

“There is no basis for the [control board] to pay regular salary payments to any of its staff at rates exceeding Executive Level IV,” GAO General Counsel Robert Murphy wrote in the report.

According to Mr. Murphy, Mrs. Barnett’s pay should have been subject to the $118,400 salary cap.

“When we hired Dr. Paul Vance, Camille Barnett and Chief Ramsey, we thought we were paying what was necessary to attract good people. And mistakes were made in some areas, but those people have moved on,” Mrs. Rivlin told The Times recently.

Mr. Brimmer called the report’s analysis of locality pay flawed and said the higher salaries were needed for the city to compete in the labor market.

“Keeping your government salaries on pace with the private sector is a matter of choice, not a capacity to pay,” he told The Times. “Public-service salaries should look to meet the prevailing competition.”

The economic boom of the 1990s, in which private-sector jobs and salaries grew rapidly, has ceded to a downturn brought on in part by the collapse of the tech industry and high-profile bankruptcies.

Mr. Barry, who had been complaining for months about the salaries, said the GAO findings “were not surprising.” He said they vindicated his position that control board workers were “all overpaid.” He later accused Mrs. Barnett of creating a “gravy train” by hiring workers to her office at inflated salaries.

A large portion of the more than 200 new $100,000-a-year employees in the D.C. government by 1999 were hired by Mrs. Barnett.

But she was not responsible for all the pay raises. In June 1997, before Mrs. Barnett arrived in Washington, the D.C. Council had approved raises of $19,000 to $39,000 for 84 top managers. The council’s actions increased the top salary for senior directors to $121,338 and for senior managers to at least $99,966.

What’s more, the salary boom spilled over into the city’s independent agencies, such as the chief financial officer’s office and the public school system. The school system’s salary increases began with retired Army Gen. Julius Becton Jr., whom the control board hired as schools CEO in 1996 at $125,000. Many of Mr. Becton’s top assistants also were paid more than $100,000 a year, as were staffers in Mr. Williams’ CFO office.

After the council approved the pay raises, Mr. Barry appointed four new agency directors, each of whom earned six-figure salaries.

In 1998, Mr. Barry’s last year in office, the council voted overwhelmingly to increase the salary of the next mayor from $90,700 to $125,000, and later that year increased it to $141,000.

“If we think the [mayors] office isn’t worth a doggone … what are others to think?” council member Harold Brazil said at that time, explaining the necessity for the executive pay increases.

Mr. Brazil, along with fellow council members Jack Evans, Kevin Chavous and Carol Schwartz, ran for mayor in 1998, but Mr. Williams won the election. When the former CFO became mayor in January 1999, the number of city workers earning more than $100,000 had grown to 301.

During his first administration, Mr. Williams implemented the voluntary Management Supervisory Service, a council-approved initiative that aimed to place 1,100 nonunion managers in a new merit-based senior service. Fifty-seven senior managers signed on and received raises that took their salaries over the $100,000 mark.

The mayor and council also granted pay increases to nonunion workers, 50 of whom began earning more than $100,000 a year.

Another 52 six-figure city salaries were created when Mr. Williams formed two new agencies — the departments of Motor Vehicles and Transportation — from the Public Works Department. And 61 city workers were rewarded with $100,000 salaries based on job performance, while 21 others gained six-figure salaries for miscellaneous reasons, according to the fiscal 2004 executive budget report.

At the same time, the city’s independent agencies — including the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, the Office of the Corporation Counsel and the University of the District of Columbia — continued hiring six-figure salaries.

The District has many more city workers earning six-figure salaries than Chicago, a city with nearly 3 million residents, and Baltimore, a city similar in size to the District, with 651,000 residents.

With 572,000 residents, the District has 156 more workers earning more than $100,000 than Chicago, which has 40,000 city workers. Only 34 of Baltimore’s 15,500 city employees earn more than $100,000 a year.

“My hunch is that the District’s compensation has not kept up [with that of the federal government], and if I did a survey, I would expect to find the gap is as wide today as it was eight years ago,” Mr. Brimmer told The Times.

Yet jurisdictions such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which also compete with the federal government, do not pay their employees as much as the District.

Fairfax County, which has more than 1 million residents, employs 11,000 workers, of whom 143 earn more than $100,000.

Montgomery County, with 891,347 residents, has 7,000 workers, of whom 249 clear six figures. Of the 249, 111 are doctors, psychiatrists and other health officials employed with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The mayor’s office, the CFO’s office and members of Congress with oversight of the District have said they will examine the city’s pay and personnel in the wake of reporting by The Times on salaries.

Meanwhile, D.C. Council members, who earn at least $92,000 a year, have said that a pay increase for Chief Ramsey must be based on the performance of his department, which some on the council have found wanting.

In an interview last week on WTOP Radio, Chief Ramsey said his critics are judging him on the basis of a bad last year, when the homicide rate rose to its highest level in five years. He said overall crime is lower than in April 1998, when he came to the District.

The chief also said he is not worried about finding another job if the contract dispute “doesn’t work out.”

Mary Shaffrey, Matthew Cella and Ellen Sorokin contributed to this report.

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