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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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Gross compensation not same as gross pay

One of the more popular features of the utahsright website is the public salary database.

But it’s also one of the least understood parts of the site, based on the feedback I receive. It seems a week doesn’t go by without me fielding a "concern" about the salary figures.

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"I don’t make that much money," a public employee will complain after he or she looks up his or her name on the site, or has it pointed out by a friend, neighbor or local gadfly.

At first glance, the complaining employee is right. But he or she is actually wrong as well.

The figure listed next to a name does not merely list an employee’s take-home pay, or even the before-taxes wages. It shows how much the employee actually costs — in terms of pay and benefits — his or her employer, who in this case is the general public.

As anyone who’s run a business knows, one cannot base personnel costs solely on how much an employee is paid. Employers know they have to provide benefits such as retirement and health insurance for their employees, and build that into their budgets.

The gross compensation reflects that total cost, and gives a more accurate picture of personnel expenses.

To show how this works, let’s take a look at a state employee in our database. For this exercise, let’s use Gov. Gary Herbert.

On the first page under the governor’s office, Herbert’s gross compensation is listed as $149,511, a $36 increase over last year.

You might think he makes a respectable sum, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Now, if you click on his name, you see how that number breaks down between wages and benefits. In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended June 30, Herbert’s actual pay was only $109,900, the same as the past year, and his benefits package cost $39,581.71, a $6.51 increase. He also received a $29 employee meal allowance during that year.

If we were to just publish Herbert’s salary, it wouldn’t give the full picture of how much his position costs the state and its taxpayers.

You can do this with almost every employee in the database. Some entities don’t provide the benefit cost, and in those cases the site shows it as salary and not gross compensation.

Since Herbert and all government employees are paid by taxpayers, the public has a right to know how much they are really paying for the people who keep government running.

Just make sure you look at all the information first before declaring someone is being overpaid — or underpaid.



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