From the D&C
A review of Rochester-area public payroll records for 2009 reveals that 274 municipal employees earned more than $100,000, and the top earner was Monroe County’s medical examiner, Dr. Caroline Dignan, who made $170,309.
The top 20 — with cumulative gross pay of $2.7 million — includes health department officials, six Greece police officers, the district attorney, the county’s commissioner of Human Services, the city’s deputy fire chief and the highest paid local police official, Irondequoit Chief Richard Boyan.
The information comes from analysis of payroll records requested in October by the Democrat and Chronicle under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. We sought records from 36 municipalities in Monroe and Ontario counties in preparation for Sunshine Week, a national campaign celebrated each March that tests the effectiveness of federal, state and local open records laws.
Nearly five months and more than $1,000 in data retrieval fees later, all the contacted communities have responded with data, but much of what was provided wasn’t what was requested: electronic records showing six years of employee names, titles, full- or part-time status, annual regular pay and gross wages with a breakdown of compensation, including annual overtime, bonuses or other stipends. No information was requested that would expose employees to identity theft. We were able to build a database and analyze payroll records from 17 of the communities.
The project aimed to highlight two issues: public payroll and the ease — or difficulty, as it turned out — of citizen access to government records.
Our experience was not unique.
“We also tried to get payroll data from municipalities, and it was challenging,” said Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank that runs SeeThroughNY.net. That website offers a searchable database of public salaries as provided by the state retirement system.
The Empire Center’s data does not have the detail that the Democrat and Chronicle was seeking.
Hoefer said his group ultimately gave up on getting the information individually from counties, towns and villages.
“It was too big a task,” he said. “And it was tough to get it because all systems are different and there’s no standardized accounting system.”
That problem became apparent here, too: In some communities, officials said they couldn’t comply with the request due to paper record-keeping, payroll systems that don’t provide customized reports and the sheer volume of data requested.
“We have all that, but just not in one, single report,” said Beth Watro, human resources director in Irondequoit. Town officials there couldn’t even provide an estimate of how many hours of labor it would take to go through their system and pull out exactly what we’d asked for. Ultimately, the town provided copies of documents used annually to certify civil service payroll.
Perinton insisted it doesn’t maintain the records we asked for and instead sent us only employee names and pay rates.
Penfield initially wanted nearly $9,000 for paper copying fees and employee time needed to compile the records. Later, however, Penfield sent most of what was requested via e-mail, for free.
Henrietta officials insisted on a letter from the Democrat and Chronicle promising to reimburse them for hiring a programmer to extract the data before they’d turn over the records. Fulfilling the request initially cost $225, but the town refunded $135 after the programmer’s bill came in.
Other communities, such as Greece, Webster, Riga, Parma, and the village of Spencerport, took the request as a challenge and worked their accounting systems hard to provide the data.
“Getting the information together was really a learning experience for us,” said Kathryn Firkins, Greece’s director of constituent services. There, Human Resources director Tracey Easterly spent hours working their in-house system to pull together detailed information into a workable electronic format. The town provided the results for free.
“I think something really good came out of it,” Firkins said.
At the top
Piecing together data from 36 municipalities to give the public a snapshot of where their tax dollars go was akin to building a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from dozens of different boxes. After weeding out responses that amounted to a foot-and-a-half high stack of paper documents that couldn’t be transformed into database format, the Democrat and Chronicle set about constructing a searchable database from what could be used — the payroll records for 17 municipalities, including large employers Monroe County and the city of Rochester, and the towns of Greece, Henrietta, Webster, Brighton, Penfield, Pittsford and Irondequoit. The records detail payroll for more than 14,000 employees.
Payroll data was not sought from school or fire districts.
Among the communities whose information could not be used was Perinton, which sent only employee names and a list of their hourly or bi-weekly pay rates, and Sweden, which sent more than 150 pages of paper documents that included no overtime data. Honeoye Falls gave its weekly payroll in paper copies. And Clarkson provided more than 600 pages of copied weekly pay stubs.
In analyzing the records, we looked at payroll for 2009, the most recent full year of data available. We did not examine compensation in the form of benefits such as pension contributions or health care.
Of the 9,300 employees listed in the database who earned more than $15,080 (the state-mandated minimum wage for a 40-hour work week), 274 earned more than $100,000. Dignan led with gross pay of $170,309.
According to the Empire Center, the highest-paid county or municipal employee statewide that year was Thomas Purtill, a now-retired police captain from Rockland County. His pay in 2009 was $543,416.
And, as with our top 20 earners, the Monroe County area’s over-$100,000 club is dominated by public safety employees: city and suburban police and Rochester Fire Department employees.
“The general trend across the state is that police officers are some of the highest-paid municipal employees,” said Hoefer of the Empire Center.
The 2009 records show more than 2,000 people employed by law enforcement in Monroe County, Irondequoit, Rochester, Greece, Fairport and Brighton. That number includes command staff, officers, jailers, deputies, court security and clerical workers.
The highest-paid police official was Irondequoit Police Chief Richard Boyan, who had gross earnings of $135,087, including longevity, education and holiday pay. Boyan has been on the job with Irondequoit since 1967 and became chief in 2000.
Overall, the median gross wage in 2009 among all police employees was about $71,000, including overtime. In all, police agencies in the database spent about $145 million on employee wages. About $5.4 million of that — roughly 4 percent — was in overtime.
“If there’s a lot of overtime, you need to wonder if there’s pension padding going on or is a department so understaffed and undermanned they legitimately need that much overtime,” said Hoefer.
In 2009, the Greece Police Department was torn apart by scandal: Two officers were accused of drug and sex crimes and the chief of police, deputy chief and others were suspended or resigned. The department was down 14 sworn officers. Those who remained scrambled to fill leadership positions and worked extra hours to provide police coverage throughout the town, said Firkins, Greece’s spokeswoman.
That year, the department had 89 employees — including those who left midyear — and a total payroll exceeding $7.8 million. Of that, about 15 percent — roughly $1.2 million — was spent on overtime.
“Everyone was working quite a bit of OT that year because of the short-handedness,” said Firkins.
The department named a new chief in February 2010, and Chief Todd Baxter has restructured the command staff, hired more than a dozen new officers and instituted new general orders to help curb or manage the overtime needs.
“Overtime, within limits, is an unavoidable cost of policing,” said Baxter, noting that shifts sometimes have to be extended due to unpredictable events, court appearances and contract requirements.
“But it is our ethical and moral obligation to ensure we spend the taxpayers’ money as best we can.”
The county’s top earners also include a host of elected officials: town supervisor John Auberger of Greece, who was paid $114,568, and Pittsford supervisor William Carpenter, who was paid $113,131. Fairport village administrator Kenneth Moore, who was appointed, was paid $122,841. In contrast, Irondequoit town supervisor Mary Ellen Heyman was paid $62,000 that year.
The list revealed other interesting disparities:
Deputy County Executive Daniel DeLaus Jr. was paid $142,582 — more than County Executive Maggie Brooks, who was paid $120,000.
Deputy County Clerk Justin Roj was paid $86,006. His boss, County Clerk Cheryl DiNolfo, earned $81,000.
And then-Monroe County Undersheriff Gary Caiola was paid $129,639, while Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn grossed $123,030.
Noah Lebowitz, Monroe County spokesman, said the sheriff’s salary is a function of the district attorney’s salary, which in turn is set based on how much state Supreme Court justices are paid. The sheriff is paid 90 percent of what District Attorney Michael Green is paid — in 2009, Green was paid $136,700.
As for the deputy county executive, deputy county clerk, undersheriff and other county staff, those salaries are determined by salary groups and step schedules, and are sometimes subject to cost-of-living adjustments and/or merit-based increases, he said.
Elected officials’ salaries, on the other hand, are set by statute at a fixed amount.
At the bottom
At the low end of the pay scale are mostly part-time seasonal workers such as lifeguards, elections inspectors and recreation assistants, many of whom are paid just a few hundred dollars for their work. The middle spectrum of public employees reflects the array of services government provides: There are highway department laborers, nurses, plow operators, bridge engineers, custodians, attorneys, librarians, auto mechanics, landscape architects, forensic scientists, caseworkers, refuse collectors and administrative assistants.
A national debate rages over whether public employees are better-compensated than their counterparts in the private sector. An Empire Center for New York State Policy study first conducted in 2006 found that the average salary for state and local government jobs in the state is higher than the private sector average in most parts of the state.
In Monroe County, however, the differential was virtually indistinguishable; with public employees earning 99 percent of the average private sector wage, according to the study.
But a different study released earlier this year by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, says public employees generally earn 8 percent less than their private sector counterparts, when controlling for education, experience, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, disability and hours worked annually.
According to our data — excluding all those who earned less than what a full-time minimum wage job would pay but including all overtime and other payments — the median pay for municipal workers was $50,405. The average pay was $53,125.
With governments from the federal level on down struggling to make ends meet, “there is a laser focus on what governments are spending,” said Joseph Stefko, director of public finance for the Center for Governmental Research in Rochester.
“The reality is that between 65 (percent) and 75 percent of average local government costs is people costs, and that’s not to disparage those costs because those people provide very vital services and do all the things that people want government to do,” Stefko said. “But when we have the conversation about how we can do more with less, we have to address those growing people costs.”
And the taxpayers deserve a full accounting of those people costs, said Cory Janick of Penfield.
Janick would like to see towns make detailed budget and expenditure information available to the public for free “since we are the employers of those working for the town and we are financing the budget,” he said.
Making more information easily available may be the wave of the future: In response to a California scandal that uncovered municipal officials paying themselves salaries that exceeded $500,000, it’s now state law there that payroll information is posted on each municipality’s website.
And other states are taking the lead in sharing public information online: The Missouri Accountability Portal is a one-stop website with up-to-date data on almost every state expenditure, including those for payroll, contracts and vendors.
“It would be nice to understand payroll information, pensions being paid, and other detailed expenses for town maintenance and special projects,” said Janick. “That way voters can provide educated feedback to the town on where we may be over- or underspending the budget money.”
Includes reporting by staff writer Sean Lahman.
Although government salaries are available under state Freedom of Information laws, the information is often neither free nor easily available. In the age of information technology, some government agencies can provide only information on paper printouts. Thirty-six communities were asked for payroll data; only 17 provided information that could be imported to a database. Top earners in the Monroe County area are generally those whose jobs involve public health, welfare and safety. The lowest earners include library clerks, custodians, food service workers and nursing assistants. High-ranking public officials often are paid less than some of their staff.
By the numbers
Down by 14 sworn officers in 2009, the Greece Police Department spent $1.2 million on overtime, about 15 percent of total payroll. To lead a town of 27,000 residents, Pittsford supervisor William Carpenter was paid $113,131 in 2009. Mary Ellen Heyman, Irondequoit’s town supervisor, that year was paid $62,000 to lead a town of about 50,000 residents. The top 20 highest-paid public employees in Monroe County’s municipalities received more than $2.7 million in 2009. The Democrat and Chronicle paid more than $1,000 in Freedom of Information fees to fulfill payroll requests from 36 municipalities. More than half the towns/villages and Monroe County did not charge for the data. Some of the data retrieval and copying fees: Henrietta, $90; Rochester, $503; Clarkson, $405; Wheatland, $100; and Churchville, $26.05.
Most members of Congress consider their personal financial disclosure statements — which report holdings in broad ranges — sufficient information for the public. Those reports are posted online (http://clerk.house.gov/public_disc/index.html) along with reports on travel and office expenses.
Only about 10 members of Congress post diaries of their official meetings, according to Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation.
Some lawmakers have increased their disclosure because of social media software such as Twitter.
For example, Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer often doesn’t make his schedule of planned appearances available except through his Twitter account. On Friday morning, his office tweeted, “On Twitter First: Chuck will be on @meetthepress w/ @chucktodd this Sunday.”
More typical is veteran Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of Fairport.
Slaughter, who chaired the Rules Committee from 2007 through 2010, opposed efforts to get the committee to televise its discussions on rules for floor debate on major legislation. She said the room was too small for TV cameras.
After Democrats lost their House majority in the November election, Republicans announced a dozen rules changes advocated by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, including plans to webcast Rules Committee sessions using small remote-controlled cameras. The meetings have been webcast since January.
Other reforms House Republicans implemented this year included posting the legislative language of all bills online 72 hours prior to a vote and requiring each committee to post its annual oversight plan online.
John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, said his group’s wish list includes many more proposals, but he’s gratified by the progress.
House disclosure reforms have been driven largely by changes in party control.
In 2007, when Democrats regained the majority after 12 years out of power, they enacted reforms that included linking lawmakers’ names to requests for earmarks.
This year, Republicans imposed a moratorium on all earmark requests and vowed to cut federal spending.
Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, who has closely tracked changes in earmark practices, said the 2007 and 2011 flips in party control pressured Republicans “to play one-upsmanship” to reclaim the mantle of fiscal reform.