Nearly half of Utah’s 50 biggest cities paid at least one employee over $200,000 last year — more than three times as much as the state’s average household brings in each year, according to a new compensation report from the Utah Taxpayers Association.
The top paid employee was Provo Director of Public Services Gregory Beckstrom, who made more than $318,000 ($88,000 of which is listed as “leave pay” on the state’s public finance website, from which the Utah Taxpayers Association pulled its information). Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown was the second-highest paid employee at a little over $272,500 and City Manager Wayne Pyle was in third at more than $259,000.
“It always stands out how much government employees do make,” said Billy Hesterman, vice president of the association. “I think there is somewhat of a stigma of ‘Oh, you work in government? You must not make that much money.’ But most of these salaries, and granted, these are the top paid employees, but they are significantly higher than what the average take home is for most families in Utah. … There is a difference between the heads of the cities and those that they serve.”
In all 50 cities reviewed, the top three highest paid employees made more than $100,000 in wages and benefits. The census data for average household income does not include benefits.
Though their compensation may seem high to some, Pyle noted that many of the highest-paid positions in city government are salaried and highly skilled.
“I don’t feel bad at all about what we make from a city manager’s standpoint; I think we’re very well worth the compensation,” he said, noting that he has brought hundreds of million dollars into the city in capital investment and increased revenue.
As city councils work to finalize their budgets next month, Hesterman said he hopes the report will provide residents more awareness about how their tax dollars are used, so they can “determine for themselves do they agree or do they think there’s cuts or changes that should be made.”
This is the first year the association has released this report, so there’s no data to show whether city salaries have increased over the past few years. But based on meetings he’s sat in on, Hesterman said he thinks they have gone up — justified by stagnant salaries during the recession and a desire to compete with the private sector.
“Many [city employees] recognize they can probably go make better salary or better compensation in the private sector, and so government is trying to compete and keep them long term,” he said. “But at the same time, I think the discussion needs to be had: Is that appropriate? Is that what’s necessary? In some cities, it might be. In other cities they might say, ‘Maybe we don’t need such an expert here.’”
Though not representative of the entire state, a 2016 Salt Lake Tribune analysis found the number of city and county government employees in Salt Lake County who reached the six-figure stratosphere shot up by 64 percent from 2011 to 2015.
Contrary to popular belief, Hesterman said city managers, city attorneys and police chiefs tend to receive the highest pay while elected officials make much less — though former Tooele Mayor Patrick Dunlavy and Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell were both on the list of top three compensated employees in their cities.
“The reality is whether it’s a state legislator or a council person or a mayor, for the most part they’re not making that much money,” Hesterman said. “This is what they do to serve their community.”
Another group that tends to make less on the city level is women. Only one made enough to reach the list of the top 10 highest salaries in this study: Salt Lake City Attorney Margaret Plane. And of the 40 employees on the list who were paid more than $200,000, the vast majority were men.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said that when she was elected, 75 percent of her employees were men. Since then, she said the city has been making an effort to address historic inequities in pay for appointed government employees, including changing interview processes and implementing a gender-blind family leave policy. And it’s made a difference, she said.
“We have eight women in administrative positions in the city, so that’s half my Cabinet and myself,” she said. “I think if you look at what’s happening for women here that we’re doing a very good job of pay equity. But we want to set the example and make sure others are following our lead.”
Utah has long been infamous for having one of the biggest gender pay gaps in the United States and is currently tied for last with Louisiana. Women who work full time and year-round in both states on average earned only 70 cents on the dollar in 2016 compared with men, according to a new study using U.S. Census data by the American Association of University Women.
Ultimately, Biskupski said having access to compensation data across the state could help women in appointed city government positions better negotiate their salaries.
“I think women are a lot less aggressive in a negotiation-type situation, and so if they can go in with information about the market itself and understanding where they fall in the years of experience, [then] that is completely helpful to them in understanding the value that they bring to the table,” she said.