RI’s Top 50 Highest Paid State Employees

Thursday, May 30, 2013


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The top 50 highest paid state employees collectively earned more than $10 million last year and include a university president and a controversial department administrator, as well as nurses, corrections officers, and athletic coaches.

The highest paid state employee is David Dooley, the president of the University of Rhode Island, at a salary of $320,000 last year. Second highest is the men’s basketball head coach at the school, Daniel Hurley, who earned $295,481 in 2012, according to state payroll records provided in response to a records request.

To see the 50 highest paid state employees in Rhode Island, go here.

A top state labor leader described the high salaries as “stunning.”

“From the eyes of a $40,000 state employee, those types of salaries are stunning,” said Michael Downey, president of AFSCME Council 94, citing the average salary among the 4,000 state workers he represents. But Downey declined to single out any individual salaries as excessive, saying he does not begrudge anyone what they earn.

The two largest contingents of highest-earning state employees are administrators at the University of Rhode Island and medical staff at the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. The top 50 list also includes seven judges and four corrections officers. (See below table for complete list.)

The list is as notable for who it includes as who it doesn’t. Governor Lincoln Chafee, who earned $129,210 last year, isn’t on it. Neither are any of the other general officers or their top staffers.

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Only two department heads show up. Ranking 14th overall is Paul Suttell, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He earned $219,601 last year. Several spots below is state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, at $204,600. Her contract is currently up for renewal.

Administrator salaries said to be excessive

“It’s our argument that we are spending far too much money on many areas, one of the many areas being public employee compensation, especially when it comes at the expense of the private sector,” said Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. He pointed to a recent center study that he said showed public employees in the state are compensated at higher levels than their private sector counterparts, even when adjustments are made for education and experience.

But some say the real issue isn’t what state employees make. Instead, they find fault with how much one particular group earns: the administrators. “The higher administration gets paid a lot of money and it’s on the backs of the people who actually do the heavy lifting every single day,” said Philip Keefe, president of SEIU Local 580, which has about 800 members.

Keefe expressed umbrage over Chafee’s now-abandoned proposal to give raises to top staffers, saying the plan reflected broader inequities in how administrators are paid versus rank-and-file. (A spokesperson for Chafee did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.)

“The rest of us are left with scraps,” Keefe said. “I find it insulting.”

A local social justice activist, Fred Odonez, agreed that state employees, on average, are not overpaid. But he described the pay of those at the top as symptomatic of broader inequities in pay that are built into the state and national economy. “The wage gap is definitely a problem,” said Odonez, executive director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality.

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Higher education salaries defended as a necessity

But several of those familiar with compensation in higher education said such salary levels are needed to compete in a national market for the best scholars and administrators.

“The salary levels reflect the need to compete for quality faculty and administrators in what is a competitive higher education marketplace in the region and in the country. We have lost candidates to other schools that are able to offer more competitive packages,” said Linda Acciardo, Director of Communications and Marketing at URI. “We operate in a national, and in some cases, an international marketplace.”

The university president himself, Dooley, was recruited from Montana State, where he had served as provost and vice president for academic affairs. The head men’s basketball coach, Daniel Hurley, previously worked at Wagner College on Staten Island.

Current pay for university administrators makes sense from a business perspective, said John Hazen White, Jr., owner of Taco, Inc. He described the salaries as less of a luxury and more of a competitive necessity. The only way for a school like the University of Rhode Island to maintain its quality is to find the best talent, which they can do only if their salaries are competitive, White said.

Acciardo noted that in 2010 the mean salary for a dean of business was $218,000, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. In the last academic year, the average salary stood at $228,000, Acciardo said.

“To get the best academic talent and to get university presidents that have research backgrounds, if you’re not competitive in the marketplace, you have no chance at all,” said Gary Sasse, director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University.

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The same principle appears to apply to athletic coaches. “In almost every state in the country, you’ll find the head basketball or football coach at or near the top of that list,” Acciardo added.

As for university president salaries, Dooley is nowhere the top. The highest paid president is Penn State’s, who received $2.9 million for the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The tenth highest paid university president earned more than three times what Dooley does.

Six made more in overtime than in salaries

But not everyone on the top ten list is there on account of high base salaries alone. Nearly a third of them were pushed into the top 50 because of overtime earnings.

In fact, six employees earned more in overtime than they did in base pay. For example, Stella Adeniyi, a registered nurse at the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, had a base salary of $100,517. But it was the $141,090 she earned in overtime that propelled her to the top of the state payroll.

Almost every employee with five-digit overtime payments worked either in corrections or for BHDDH, earning more than the directors for each department, neither of whom even made the list.

Stenhouse questioned why overtime pay was so high. “What is it in these contracts that allows so few to earn so much?” Stenhouse said.

When that question was posed to David Burnett, the associate director at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, he described overtime as a fact of life in hospital settings. Because hospitals are open round-the-clock, all week, he suggested that it’s often necessary to call in nurses and doctors on overtime to fill any vacancies.

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“You don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” Keefe added. “The door never closes.”

But others dispute the claim that overtime is truly a necessity at a hospital, or any other state agency. Sasse described high overtime pay as a problem that the state needs to fix. “I do think the overtime system is being gamed,” Sasse said, adding that he was not speaking of any individual employees on the top 50 list. He said the state should set a target for reducing overtime costs and do what is necessary to achieve it.

Once overtime pay exceeds base salaries, White said state officials should simply hire another employee.

Keefe blamed the overtime on staff cutbacks. At the state hospital, Eleanor Slater, he said staff has been trimmed back by a third, starting under former Gov. Don Carcieri. But the problem has not been resolved under Chafee, he added. (He also noted that rank-and-file workers who work overtime often have no choice in the matter.)

“We are at the lowest point we have ever been with state employees,” Keefe said.

Non-administrators who made the top 50

Most of those on the top 50 list are either administrators or non-administrators who had significant overtime earnings.

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Only a handful of the highest earners don’t fit into either category. One is the state medical examiner, Christina Stanley, who earned $230,000, more than the Attorney General, the state Treasurer, and the state health secretary, Steve Costantino, who oversees her department, along with a number of other health-related state agencies.

Burnett said such a salary was necessary to attract a qualified medical examiner. “The market is extremely competitive,” Burnett said.

Besides having the usual medical credentials, Burnett said a state medical director is involved in law enforcement investigations and often must testify in court. “It’s a lot of expertise that’s difficult to find,” he said.

He said the state had struggled to find a permanent medical examiner for about three to four years, filling the position on an interim or contract basis in the meantime. As the state searched for a permanent hire, Burnett said it had had to continually raise the salary. When at last the state did find the right person, it was Stanley, who had previously worked in San Diego County. She took her post in Rhode Island in fall 2011.

Another top-earning employee who breaks the mold is Alan Rothman, a research professor specializing in immunity and pathogenesis of viral diseases. His salary is listed at $227,000. A university spokeswoman noted that Rothman is a medical doctor whose pay is partially funded by outside grants. His listed salary includes the external grant money.

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bealenews

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