October 1, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Tourist Town Managers Swimming in Dough

The NerveThis time of year, the town of Hilton Head Island and city of Myrtle Beach are attracting tens of thousands of tourists whose spending fattens the budgets of the coastal communities.

And it certainly hasn’t hurt the paychecks of government employees in those municipalities.

Last month, The Nerve reported that of the town of Hilton Head Island’s 241 employees, 154, or about 64 percent, earn at least $50,000 annually. The median salary of those workers ranges from about $58,500 to about $71,500, depending upon the department, The Nerve’s review found.

The top government wage earner in the upscale resort community of about 37,000 is Town Manager Steve Riley, who earns $162,000 yearly. When interviewed last month by The Nerve, Riley defended his salary, noting that the island’s population during the heavy tourist season can swell to at least 150,000.

But Riley isn’t the only highly paid coastal administrator. Tom Leath, Myrtle Beach’s city manager, earns $160,000 annually in a municipality with a permanent population of about 27,000, which doesn’t even rank in South Carolina’s top-10 most populous cities or towns.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, city spokesman Mark Kruea acknowledged while the city’s permanent population might appear a “little small,” its average daily population is a “conservative” 105,000 with tourists. Leath’s salary is reflective of the added demands tourists bring, he said.

“City Council factors in the additional responsibility of providing services to millions of visitors each year when setting the manager’s salary,” Kruea said in a written response.

To deal with the heavy tourist influx, Myrtle Beach has 835 full-time employees and another 150 seasonal or part-time employees, Kruea said, noting this fiscal year’s annual budget is $152.5 million.

“Remember that municipal government is all about providing service, especially in a tourism destination, and it takes people to provide that service,” Kruea said. “Council and the manager very consciously want to hire and keep the best people.”

“I think you’ll see,” he continued, “that the manager’s compensation is appropriate to the size of the job, even if the population seems a little small.”

In his interview last month, Riley noted that his salary fell in the middle of a salary study done several years earlier of various Hilton Head government positions. After The Nerve’s story last month, the town released a list under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act of mainly municipalities and other public agencies used in the 2006-2007 study.

According to that list, 22 places in seven states were reviewed, eight of which were in South Carolina, including Myrtle Beach. The Nerve last week sought to obtain the current or most recently available annual salaries of the top administrators in seven of the eight places (one was a private company).

Below are those salaries, based on records with the Municipal Association of South Carolina (MASC) or interviews with finance officials in the respective municipalities:

  • Palmetto Electric Cooperative Chief Executive Officer  G. Thomas Upshaw –  $339,679 (as of 2010);
  • Beaufort County School District Superintendent Valerie Truesdale –  $205,600;
  • Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority General Manager Dean Moss – $194,211;
  • Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic – $169,220;
  • Myrtle Beach City Manager Tom Leath – $160,000;
  • Greenville City Manager John Castile – $151,798; and
  • Mount Pleasant Town Administrator Eric DeMoura – $139,050

(Moss’ and DeMoura’s salaries were released after The Nerve submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act.)Upon first glance, Riley’s and Leath’s salaries fall around the middle of the salary list. But the ranking doesn’t tell the whole story.

For example, though the annual pay of Kubic, Beaufort County’s administrator, is slightly larger than Riley’s and Leath’s, he oversees a county with a permanent population of about 162,000 –  four times the size of Hilton Head’s permanent population and six times the size of Myrtle Beach’s.

Greenville and Mt. Pleasant also have larger permanent populations (about 58,500 and 68,000, respectively), though their top executives earn less than Riley and Leath.

The Nerve  that Riley earns slightly less than the listed annual salary ($162,816) of Joe Riley (no relation to Steve), the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina’s second-largest city with a permanent population of about 120,000. Steve Riley easily makes more than North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey ($131,412), who oversees the state’s third-largest city (population 97,000).

Charleston and North Charleston have a strong-mayor form of government, which gives those mayors hiring and firing authority over employees, something Steve Riley and Leath have under council-manager forms of government.

Steve Riley and Leath also each earn more than their counterparts in S.C. municipalities with comparably sized permanent populations, The Nerve’s review found.

Following is a sampling of those salaries, with the municipality’s population in parentheses, based on MASC records or interviews with finance officials in the respective municipalities:

  • Goose Creek City Administrator Dennis Harmon – $153,485 (36,000);
  • Florence City Manager David Williams – $143,930 (37,000);
  • Spartanburg City Manager Ed Memmott – $132,500 (37,000); and
  • Summerville Town Administrator Dennis Pieper (recently resigned) – $121,689 (43,000)

Besides the salary study list, the town of Hilton Head also provided The Nerve, under the Freedom of Information Act, with information on benefits paid out to the highest-salaried  government employees in each of the town’s four departments.Riley, for example, earns $65,122 annually in benefits in addition to his $162,000 salary. The benefits package includes standard benefits (employee medical and dental coverage, for example) and $29,103 in “executive” benefits comprised of:

  • A $950 monthly car allowance;
  • A retirement plan contribution equal to 8 percent of his salary ($1,080 monthly);
  • Employee portion of family-level medical, dental and vision premiums paid by the town ($311 monthly); and
  • An additional $100,000 life insurance policy ($1,000 per year)

As of July 18, the total cost of benefits for the town’s 241 employees, most of whom work in the Fire/Rescue Department, was $4.9 million, town records show. Total annual payroll as of that date was about $14.4 million.Attached with this story is a list of the top five highest-paid town employees, with benefits, in each of the four departments.

Hilton Head Salary and Benefits List

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org

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