VisitPittsburgh tourism agency's executive pay rates high, study finds

Aaron Aupperlee
| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Allegheny County's tourism promotion agency pays a premium to employ some of its executives compared with the nonprofit's counterparts in other cities, according to a portion of a study VisitPittsburgh released on Friday.

Four of VisitPittsburgh's 51 employees earned salaries significantly higher than similar positions elsewhere, but base salaries for most employees fell in a midrange when compared with tourism sales and marketing firms in 16 similar cities, according to the study.

“I was happy and relieved the data came back within the 50th percentile. It was what I was told I would inherit,” said Craig Davis, who took over as CEO in March 2012.

VisitPittsburgh hired Cowden Associates, Downtown, to complete the study amid concerns from politicians about high salaries paid to executives at the publicly subsidized agency raised by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park; Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Squirrel Hill Democrat; and some County Council members.

VisitPittsburgh declined to release the full report, providing instead a two-page letter sent from Cowden Associates to Bill Cagney, chairman of the agency's board of directors. Davis would not release the full report because it contained salary details of all employees, and VisitPittsburgh did not feel comfortable making such information public. A spokeswoman declined to disclose the cost of the compensation study but said the nonprofit paid a “competitive rate.”

Ferlo called the report “cosmetic” and said it did not address the high executive salaries and other fundamental problems with the agency.

He wants VisitPittsburgh to fall under the oversight of Allegheny County officials and Pittsburgh's mayor; contract with local, private promotional agencies; and provide more transparency concerning pay and performance.

“This public agency has expended millions of dollars with high executive salaries, no accountability or oversight of its performance, and little to show by way of ensuring a financially solvent taxpayer-funded convention center,” Ferlo said in a statement, referring to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

He urged County Controller Chelsa Wagner to perform a “forensic performance audit.”

State legislators, such as Ferlo, receive a base salary of $83,802 a year.

The controller's office said it would collaborate with Ferlo regarding concerns about VisitPittsburgh and work with him to secure funding to conduct an audit.

Several executives at VisitPittsburgh made six-figure salaries in 2011, according to the most recent reports the nonprofit is required to file annually with the Internal Revenue Service.

Joe McGrath, the former executive chairman and CEO who retired in June, made $353,680 in 2011. Total benefits and other compensation brought the total to $390,563. McGrath is no longer on the agency's payroll.

Davis said he makes $240,000 a year.

Six executives, including McGrath and Davis, received base salaries greater than $117,000.

The report also found that the agency has appropriate oversight of its salary and incentive programs.

VisitPittsburgh's 2013 budget is $10.5 million. Roughly $8.4 million of that comes from Allegheny County's 7 percent tax on hotel room stays.

In 2012, the agency directly booked more than 223,000 room nights for 2012 and beyond, bringing in more than $190 million in spending to the greater Pittsburgh economy, Davis said. The agency regularly conducts salary studies, he said.

Elliot Dinkin, president and CEO of Cowden Associates, said he was not surprised to find that four employees earned salaries in the 75th to 100th percentile, meaning they rank in the top tier of comparable agencies.

In his letter, Dinkin said those employees are “highly tenured,” but he did not identify them.

The study compared the salaries of all employees with a national database, Dinkin said. The pay of top executives was compared with agencies in Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Cleveland; Baltimore; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; and at least 10 other cities.

VisitPittsburgh has shared the report with its board and Fitzgerald, who did not return calls seeking comment. Fitzgerald is paid $86,317 a year.

The agency is organizing meetings with city, county and state officials to review the report, Davis said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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