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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 6 years ago

My View: Clip those 'golden parachutes'

by: Rod Thomson

We need a complete re-start on the contracts given to top government employees. These ridiculous buyout packages for administrators at taxpayer expense must stop.

Being in hard, painfully long economic times would seem like the perfect moment for public officials to enact such changes — which the public would endorse heartily.

Apparently, that is slowly beginning to happen among local politicians who make such decisions.

What were once called “golden parachutes” for Wall Street executives and corporate big-wigs in the 1980s have become ubiquitous in government. We have seen them in Sarasota and Manatee counties with disturbing regularity.

This is usually where someone will complain to me, “Why don’t you criticize the overpaid, over-benefitted, fat-cat corporate honchos?” Simple. It’s their company’s money, not mine. If Chevron or Wal-Mart or Goldman Sachs wants to pay failed executives enormous amounts of money from shareholders, that is their problem (as long as we never, never, never bail anyone out again with public funds).

But sweetheart deals given to government officials are done with my money and your money. It is extracted from all of us by the force of law, and we have no choice in the matter, unlike investors who choose to put their own money in private companies. It is therefore of infinitely more importance what our governments pay their top executives than what Hewlett-Packard or Sun Hydraulics pays their executives.
But elected officials, guided by bureaucrats and government consultants, continue to give sweetheart deals to public “servants.” Why? Because everyone else does, of course!

Longboat Key taxpayers, for instance, paid $268,364 to buy out Bruce St. Denis’ contract. St. Denis resigned as town manager in September after 14 years when the Town Commission decided he was no longer the right man for the job. Most of us are just out of a job at that point, but a top government employee gets a quarter-million dollars in taxpayer largesse.

Worse yet is the situation with the State College of Florida — formerly Manatee Community College.
A recent college board of trustees compensation committee discussed what it would take to buy out President Lars Hafner’s contract. While the committee members, meeting in Lakewood Ranch, said they were not anticipating an imminent attempt to terminate Hafner, the discussion was enlightening.

Hafner has a five-year contract paying him $322,819 annually. If the trustees wanted to go in a different direction, the golden parachute that Hafner would gently land with could total $1.6 million. That would be sweet pay for a fired public servant.

A trustee defended Hafner’s salary deal as average for what other Florida colleges and universities pay their presidents.

This is a problem. Are there worse negotiators than school boards, county commissions, city commissions and so on? They find someone they want to hire, and then they get to spend other people’s money to hire the person. And to protect themselves politically, they use the method of paying the new hire roughly what others do — a practice in higher education that has resulted in pay spiraling upward along with tuition and the general costs of college education.

But there is some hope. More recent hires of top local government officials are finally getting their golden parachutes clipped.

When the Sarasota County Commission hired Randal Reid last month to be the new county administrator, it capped his buyout at 20 weeks of his salary if he is terminated without cause — which is the status for firing someone for performance, not for some legal cause. And the city of Sarasota’s contract with City Manager Bob Bartolotta is capped at six months of his salary if he is fired for not measuring up any longer.That is $88,000 for salary, $11,000 for pension and about $4,000 for health care.

The city and county have recognized the importance — and even fairness — of dramatically limiting how much taxpayers have to pay to get rid of an administrator. It’s a step in the right direction that hopefully others, particularly in the education establishment, will follow.

Rod Thomson can be reached at [email protected].

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