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196 Pittsburgh workers' pay tops $100K

| Saturday, May 29, 2010

When Barbara Pace started working for Allegheny County nearly 10 years ago, she made $10 an hour, or about $20,000 a year.

As a clerk typist in the Department of Court Records, she made just more than $27,000 last year.

"That's a long time to climb to ($27,000)," said Pace, 68, of Emsworth. "We feel totally devalued and underpaid."

But experts say despite lower pay for some county workers, on average public employees earn better wages than their counterparts in the private sector.

Statistics bear that out. According to the Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average wage per job in Pennsylvania was $43,488 in 2008, the last year for which data were available. That includes full- and part-time jobs.

City records show Pittsburgh paid its full-time workers an average 2009 base salary of $49,510.09, an average that spiked to $59,723 with overtime and other premiums. In the county, the average full-time worker's base salary was $41,408.07 — less than the state and city averages, even with a premium pay increase to an average $43,004.10.

Many public sector workers make more than their private sector counterparts "largely because of the generous pension benefits available upon retirement, though public sector employees enjoy wage advantages over private sector employees if considering comparable jobs," said Matt Ryan, an assistant professor of economics at Duquesne University.

"Coupled with the non-wage benefit of job security, public sector jobs are very lucrative opportunities for workers," Ryan said.

Records provided by Pittsburgh and county officials show it can be more lucrative to work for the city than the county. Even though the city budgeted only 18 employees to earn more than $100,000 last year, 196 employees actually did so, with overtime and other pay. In Allegheny County, 17 were budgeted to receive $100,000 or more; 32 did.

Leading the list of top earners for both governments are two men who head county authorities: Airport Authority Director Brad Penrod, making $196,257, and Port Authority CEO Steve Bland, making $182,502. In fact, among executives at several city or county authorities, the average salary was nearly $150,000.

By comparison, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl made $105,125.56, and County Executive Dan Onorato made $90,000.04.

Jerome R. Wasek, a paramedic crew chief, became the city's top-paid worker in 2009, drawing $174,880.99. Much of that was premium pay added to his base salary of $62,031.54. Wasek, honored last year for rescuing a New Year's Eve reveler from the side of Mt. Washington, appeared at or near the top of the city pay scale for a few years. He could not be reached for this story, but city officials say paramedics regularly cover vacant shifts and receive overtime pay for working events such as concerts and games.

Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams was the county's top earner, paid $180,250.20 with no overtime. Williams said his 30 years of medical experience and his oversight of 100 employees put him "right in the range nationally for what medical examiners get reimbursed." The office conducts about 1,000 autopsies each year.

Williams earns less than at least one colleague with a comparable operation: According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, the Milwaukee County, Wis., medical examiner makes $250,000 annually, and its office conducts just under 1,000 autopsies a year.

City leaders say the makeup of the two government work forces differs vastly. Most city employees are firefighters, police officers and medics. The county employs more administrative staff.

"Probably 63 or 64 percent of our employees are affiliated with public safety," said Judy Hill-Finegan, director of the city's Department of Personnel and Civil Service Commission.

Last year, officials said, public safety employees here earned more partly because of special events — parades celebrating Super Bowl and Stanley Cup victories, the Group of 20 economic summit in September, and other large events. Many of those costs were reimbursable, they said. The county was fully reimbursed the $2.45 million for overtime, equipment and supplies during the G-20, spokesman Kevin Evanto said. City officials expect reimbursement of more than $12 million by year's end.

Federal records show the national median wage of a firefighter, excluding supervisors, was $44,260 last year. In Pittsburgh, firefighters who do not hold rank had a median base salary of $56,865.79 and a gross pay of $71,710.80. According to the 2010 city budget, the base salary included payments for training, uniform, supplies and other items.

Nathan Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative policy group in Harrisburg, said the public sector is "much more heavily unionized" than the private sector, which drives the difference in wages and benefits.

"When it's a private company, you're negotiating with the ownership directly. It's their money," Benefield said. "Government officials aren't necessarily paying the bills."

City officials say they're trying to control costs; they must follow spending guidelines as a financially distressed city under the state Act 47 law. They say they're constrained by union contracts and other factors. Cathy Qureshi, the city's assistant finance director, said the city cut its work force by about 1,000 positions since 2002.

In the county, 16 Allegheny County police officers made more than $100,000, because of overtime. Police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said his department looks at overtime "on a daily basis" to try to curb costs, but factors such as court hearings involving officers are beyond its control.

Overtime can have a long-term effect: For some city and county employees, the amount of overtime they earn in the last few years of their careers pushes up their yearly pensions.

County Treasurer John K. Weinstein said among about 7,000 full-time employees, 2,000 to 3,000 aren't eligible for increased pensions based on overtime calculations, though they contribute to the pension system. City Controller Michael Lamb said only city firefighters are eligible for pension calculations based on overtime. The average firefighter's annual retirement benefit, Lamb said, is just more than $32,000.

Both Weinstein and Lamb said they support reforms that would change or eliminate spiking of overtime into pension calculations.

Last year, state Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, sponsored legislation to eliminate overtime from the pension equation. Smith estimated it could save the county's retirement fund $36 million over more than 20 years.

"The entire state needs pension reform," Weinstein said. "Maybe Allegheny County is on the cusp of something bigger."

Six-figure incomes

Six percent of Pittsburgh's full-time city employees made $100,000 or more in 2009, compared with nearly 0.5 percent of Allegheny County employees, according to city and county records.


Full-time employees: 3,148

Number making $100,000 or more last year: 196

Top 10 earners in 2009

1. Jerome R. Wasek, paramedic crew chief, $174,880.99

2. Harry J. Scherer, fire deputy chief, $148,339.95

3. Mark J. Goob, police detective, $144,254.16

4. Michael J. Mullen, fire deputy chief, $143,872.43

5. William G. Haines, police sergeant, $142,370.03

6. Charles J. Lenz, fire battalion chief, $141,618.61

7. Thomas J. Atkins, police lieutenant, $141,339.91

8. Daniel P. Hennessy, fire deputy chief, $139,732.16

9. Terry A. Pryor, police officer, $136,682.66

10. John H. Soderberg, paramedic crew chief, $136,531.22

Allegheny County

Full-time employees: 6,927

Number making $100,000 or more last year: 32

Top 10 earners in 2009

1. Karl E. Williams, medical examiner, $180,250.20

2. Stephen A. Zappala Jr., district attorney, $156,565.96

3. Marc K. Cherna, human services director, $155,149.05

4. Dennis M. Davin, economic development director, $150,149.05

5. Abdulrezak M. Shakir, deputy medical examiner, $149,474.20

6. Terry L. Hediger, county homicide detective, $133,518.33 (retired Dec. 15)

7. Todd M. Luckasevic, associate medical examiner, $132,637.18

8. Baiyang Xu, associate medical examiner, $129,156.57

9. Russell E. Strathen, jail corrections officer, $118,855.76

10. Perry Vahaly, police sergeant, $113,076.11

City/county authorities

• Bradley Penrod, director of Allegheny County Airport Authority, $196,257

• Steve Bland, Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO, $182,502

• A. Fulton Meachem Jr., executive director of Pittsburgh Housing Authority: $163,052 (includes $14,322 bonus)

• Frank Aggazio, executive director of Allegheny County Housing Authority, $144,500

• Mary Conturo, city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority executive director, $126,290

• Rob Stephany, city Urban Redevelopment Authority executive director, $115,000

• Arletta Scott Williams, executive director of Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, $110,000

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