UTA cuts executive benefits to now match $7 for every $3 contributed — triple that of other agency workers

Board approves change with one member complaining that salary, benefits are still too generous.<br>

The Utah Transit Authority says compensation for its top executives — long criticized as exorbitant — is now in line with industry standards, after a final cut approved this week in their benefits.

But a maverick member of the UTA board, North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor, disagrees. He says that even with that final reduction, overall compensation for executives is still far too generous.

“The salaries are too high compared to other public entities,” he said, prompting protests from other board members. Taylor was the only member to vote against what were billed as the final compensation changes that the agency needs.

With that change in retirement savings programs, for every $3 that UTA’s top executives pay in, UTA will match it with $7 — capped with a maximum match of 7 percent of that executive’s pay.

UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said that is a reduction from what was in place previously, which he described only as the maximum payment allowed by Internal Revenue Service rules.

UTA spokeswoman Erika Shubin said the exact amount allowed in that previous program changed over the years, but in 2017, the IRS rules allow for a maximum contribution of $24,000 for employees over 50 and $18,000 for employees under 50.

Benson said the new retirement adjustment — on top of the previous elimination of performance bonuses and car allowances, along with other reductions — means some executives’ compensation will be cut by $50,000 a year.

With that, Benson said, “We can say we have completed our overhaul of compensation, and we are in line with the market.”

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Transit Authority President and CEO Jerry Benson speaks with the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board Wednesday Nov. 2.

However, UTA executives still enjoy a match for their retirement savings programs that is three times more generous than what other UTA employees receive. For others, the agency provides a $2 match for every $3 they contribute — up to 2 percent of their salary.

“Why wouldn’t we bring the executives in line with what other employees are getting?” Taylor asked, adding that is what he has seen everywhere he has worked — even the Army. “The general has the same benefit as the private.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune UTA's liaison for Weber and Box Elder Co., Brent Taylor, who is also the Mayor of North Ogden. The Utah Transit Authority Board discussed logistics of the controversial UTA Clearfield land deal during their open meeting, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

Benson said compensation studies by UTA showed that offering such enhanced benefits for executives is a “common practice” in similar government agencies and nonprofits. “Not everyone does it, but many do.”

Benson added that the combined cuts in salary, benefits and bonuses to executives translate to “a big change that has real impact on real people.”

Taylor said that taxpayers who pay the freight are real people, too, “who work hard as well, and I don’t think this … is justified.”

While UTA is making progress to remedy high executive salaries, Taylor said, they still are “higher than any public agency I’m familiar with in the state of Utah.”

Board Chairman Robert McKinley interrupted, saying, “That’s not accurate.” So Taylor asked him what agencies have higher salaries than UTA.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Robert W. McKinley makes a comment at the Utah Transit Authority Board meeting at Utah Valley University, Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

McKinley and board member Dannie McConkie suggested the Utah Health Department director, and professors at the University of Utah.

Records on the state’s financial transparency website don’t support that argument.

It shows that Benson’s total 2016 compensation at UTA, including benefits, was $346,057. Health Department Director Joseph Miner, a medical doctor, had compensation of $240,865

Directors of two of the largest transportation agencies in the state also had lower compensation than Benson in 2016. Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras’ salary and benefits totaled $240,938, and then-Salt Lake City International Airport Director Maureen Riley’s was $304,438.

“If anyone wants to butt in and argue too, that’s fine,” Taylor told fellow board members. “I’m just trying to give my opinion that I think the salaries are too high compared to other public entities outside of professors and our football coaches and things like that. Certainly, I think this is a step in the wrong direction.”

Longtime board member Necia Christensen disagreed.

She noted that Benson said generous benefits programs began in the late 1990s as an attempt to keep key UTA official from leaving before or during the Olympics. She said UTA also needs to retain top officials now during ongoing strategic planning.

She said the more generous benefits for executives “is kind of the last possible thing we have to offer. And we want to keep these people…. We want to keep these people who are staying with a $50,000 pay cut.”

McConkie also praised UTA executives accepting compensation reductions saying, “You guys [have] seen what needs to be done, and you’ve done it.” McKinley similarly praised executives for a “tremendous job” to “undertake this and accept it.”