Former UTA manager says superiors unfairly reduced worker raises, while they pocketed big ones

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A TRAX train at the North Temple Bridge/Guadalupe TRAX station.

Mark Palmer, a former Utah Transit Authority supervisor, says his superiors there essentially acted like Robin Hood in reverse — taking from the poor to give to the rich — by ordering unfairly small raises for underlings while upper managers pocketed much larger ones.

They ordered him not to tell his employees details that would suggest they were shortchanged, he said, adding that he complained to no avail. He has some documents to back his assertions.

“My guys actually saved UTA $1 million in extra work that they took on. So, I was furious over this whole thing,” and it was among the reasons he quit in May, Palmer said. “I was really frustrated.”

In a written response, the UTA said, “The notion that senior leaders took increases from employees to ‘enrich themselves’ is completely untrue.”

Palmer’s assertions come after high UTA executive salaries and bonuses have been a source of controversy for years. They were a main reason that the Legislature recently restructured the agency.

Palmer said he left UTA on good terms. He was the radio communications engineering supervisor for about four years and oversaw eight employees. His team was part of a large department that includes its information technology operations and the UTA Police Department.

Unfair shell game?

A month after he quit, when he “was out of danger of being fired,” Palmer filed an open records request for the types and amounts of raises awarded in his department in 2018 and this year. “I was more furious when I got that actual document.” He said it confirmed rumors that bosses received bigger raises than others.

Palmer said his superiors did that by playing what he sees as an unfair shell game with different pots of money set aside for raises.

For one pot, he said, UTA did a market survey that showed many workers in his IT area were underpaid by market standards, and the agency ordered “market raises” to close the difference.

As UTA Interim Executive Director Steve Meyer said in an interview, IT “is what we call a hot market. We’ve been challenged with keeping people — and getting people interested in the positions — because of our salary structure compared with all the technology companies that are growing rapidly here.”

Palmer said, “Every person on my team was given a market increase of at least 2% in 2018” to catch up to the market.

On top of that, UTA also set aside a pool of money to fund an average 3% raise throughout the agency in 2018 based on individual merit. High performers could get more, say 4%, while an average performer may get 2% — as long as the average came out to 3%.

Palmer said he used a computer tool provided by UTA to figure the merit raises for his team, which then automatically added the market increases. He then submitted them.

Once completed, “My manager told me that because my team received market increases, they needed to give back a portion of their merit increases so the director could redistribute where it needed to be.”

He objected that it was unfair to his manager, director and the human resources department. “I lost the battle.”

UTA chief Meyer said reducing merit raises for people who received market increases is common at UTA.

“I’ve had it done to me. I’ve done it to people,” he said. “I’ve had people get a 5, 8, 10% [market] increase in a year. I’m not going to give them another 3% [merit increase] when the person next to them may get 3% maximum” from all sources. He added that violates no UTA policy.

Hiding actions

“Just because it doesn’t violate policy doesn’t mean it’s right,” Palmer countered — especially when bosses received the biggest raises from the redistributed funds and ordered lower supervisors not to tell line workers how much their merit raises were.

At a meeting of IT managers, Palmer said their supervisor told them they could “not tell any of our subordinates that they had their merit increases taken away,” and “that our subordinates had no right to know what their true merit increase was, just the total increase in salary.”

Palmer added that documents he obtained showed that in his area “every individual that received a market increase also received less than a 3% merit increase” — with the exception of an office manager who is an assistant to the IT director.

“If this was all legitimate, then the IT director should not have banned us — supervisors and managers — from giving the results of the merit increases to our subordinates,” Palmer said.

UTA said that the average 2018 salary increase from all sources — merit and market — was 5.9% in radio communications overseen by Palmer, and 4.54% across all of information technology.

Bosses benefit

Palmer said two bosses received the biggest merit raises from redistributed money out of all IT workers in 2018.

Documents show that his immediate supervisor, Kyle Brimley, communications and deployment manager, received a 7% merit increase. His 2018 compensation after the raise was $172,817 ($122,262 in wages and leave, a $4,114 bonus and $46,441 in benefits), according to records.

One step up from him, Dan Harmuth, director of information technology, received a 6% merit increase. His 2018 compensation was $204,760 ($145,750 in wages and leave, a $3,255 bonus and $55,756 in benefits).

Palmer said Harmuth told him that a supervisor another step up — Dave Goeres, then chief of safety, security and information — had pushed for redistribution of merit raises from those who had market increases. Documents show Goeres received no merit increase. His 2018 compensation was $268,696 ($183,901 in salary and leave and $84,795 in benefits).

UTA’s written response said supervisors do not give themselves raises, and raises are reviewed and approved from a level above them. It also said senior leaders review and adjust salary boosts for their entire area, and merit increases go through multiple reviews.

It also noted that Palmer, who complained about the redistribution, “received a 4% merit increase, above the initial 3% pool amount.”

Palmer acknowledged that but said, “I did not ask for a higher-than-average increase and did not have a way to turn it back. I am not saying that because I am magnanimous; I just believe that if you take care of your people, they will take care of you, which in the end makes my job easier.”