It Pays to Be a Hilton Head Government Worker

July 20, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveFew would argue that Hilton Head Island is one of the premier resort getaways in the Palmetto State and the country.

With its two dozen golf courses, well-tended beaches, miles of public bike and nature trails, and hundreds of restaurants and stores, the 12-mile-by-5-mile island has been a popular playground for decades for largely well-heeled tourists, second homeowners and retirees.

But what isn’t as well known to outsiders is that the island of about 37,000 residents also is a very good place to be if you’re a town government employee.

A review by The Nerve of salary data released last week by the town under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act found that 154 of 241 employees, or about 64 percent, earn at least $50,000 yearly.

The median annual salaries, which represent the midway point in a salary range, for those earning $50,000 or more in the city’s four departments are as follows:

  • Administration – $71,516;
  • Public Projects and Facilities – $66,619;
  • Community Development – $64,479; and
  • Fire/Rescue – $58,367

Of those employees making less than $50,000, only two were listed as earning below $34,000, both of whom work in the Fire/Rescue Department, the town’s largest division with 145 employees.

As of 2009, the per-capita income in South Carolina was about $32,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The salaries of some Hilton Head town employees are poised to rise under a new budget with a tax increase that Town Council has adopted.

Hilton Head Island in recent years has led all municipalities in the state in per-capita income; the most recently available federal statistics listed it at $45,052.

Some top Hilton Head government workers not only earn more annually than their counterparts in comparably sized cities and towns in South Carolina, but a few take home as much as or more than those with the same titles or responsibilities in the state’s largest cities, The Nerve’s review found.

Take Town Manager Steve Riley, for example.

His annual $162,000 salary is just a shade under the listed annual salary of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (no relation to Steve), who oversees South Carolina’s second-largest city with a population of about 120,000.

By ordinance, Mayor Riley’s annual salary is $162,816, though his actual pay is $159,216 because he returns his cost-of-living increase to the city’s budget, Barbara Vaughn, the mayor’s spokeswoman, toldThe Nerve on Tuesday.

Steve Riley’s salary also easily beats out the annual pay of Keith Summey, mayor of North Charleston ($131,412), South Carolina’s third-largest city (population 97,000); and of his counterparts in the comparably sized municipalities of Goose Creek ($153,485) and Spartanburg ($132,500), according to online records with the Municipal Association of South Carolina (www.masc.sc.)

Charleston and North Charleston have strong-mayor forms of government, which allow those mayors to have the final say in hiring and firing employees. In Hilton Head’s council-manager form of government, Riley has that authority.

(Critics of the council-manager form of government contend that it gives too much power to an unelected manager.)

Riley’s salary also appears out of proportion with the annual pay of Columbia City Manager Steve Gantt. Although the state’s capital and largest city (population 129,000) is nearly 3.5 times the size of Hilton Head, Gantt’s annual salary ($175,000) is only about 7.5 percent higher than Riley’s.

Contacted Monday, Riley, who has been the town manager for 20 years, told The Nerve that his salary should be viewed in light of the fact that the town’s population swells during the summer tourist season.

“I’ve got 150,000 people on the island,” he said.

Riley said his pay was in the “middle” of a salary scale based on a study done several years ago of Southern cities with populations of about 150,000 to 155,000, adding, ““I haven’t gotten a raise in that three or four years.”

Besides Riley, The Nerve’s review of Municipal Association records found similar salary gaps when comparing other top government positions on Hilton Head to Columbia and Charleston, as well as to similarly sized cities elsewhere in the state.

The higher-paying positions in Hilton Head included the assistant town manager, human resources director, finance director, geographic information systems administrator, public projects and facilities (public works) director, and fire chief.

In several cases, the salary gaps were quite large, The Nerve’s review found. For example, Hilton Head’s assistant town manager earns $147,303 a year, nearly 30 percent more than the assistant administrator in Spartanburg, which also has a population of about 37,000.

In Goose Creek, which has a population of about 36,000, its finance director earns nearly $87,000 annually, about $21,500 less than Hilton Head’s finance director.

Steve Riley told The Nerve that it is difficult to compare his town’s salaries to other S.C. municipalities without knowing the experience and responsibilities of the employees in those communities.

Despite The Nerve’s findings, Riley said he has heard virtually no complaints from the town’s residents about salaries paid to Hilton Head government workers.

“There was an email forwarded to me last week,” Riley said. “That was the first I had seen directly about what you’re talking about.”

Following are the top-five salaries in each of the town’s four departments, according to data provided last week to The Nerve:

Administration

  • Steve Riley, town manager – $162,000
  • Gregory Deloach, assistant town manager – $147,303
  • Nancy Gasen, human resources director – $112,928
  • Susan Simmons, finance director – $108,500
  • Thomas Fultz, administrative services director – $105,952

Public Projects and Facilities

  •  Scott Parker Liggett, director/chief engineer – $123,344
  • Jeffrey Buckalew, town engineer – $92,223
  • Darrin Shoemaker, traffic engineer – $91,692
  • Julian Walls, facilities manager – $82,191
  • Derrick Coaxum, assistant facilities manager – $74,105

Community Development

  • Charles Cousins, director – $125,345
  • Jill Foster, deputy director – $101,211
  • Robert Klein, building official – $88,880
  • Theresa Lewis, land management ordinance official – $87,630
  • Trudie Johnson, floodplain administrator – $84,039

Fire/Rescue

  • Lavarn Lucas, chief – $113,745
  • Bradley Tadlock, deputy fire chief – $92,153
  • Charles Steedley, fire battalion chief – $86,455
  • Michael Mayers, fire battalion chief – $84,499
  • Jeffrey Hartberger, fire battalion chief – $83,752

The total annual payroll for the town’s 241 employees is about $14 million, The Nerve’s review found.

Contacted last week, Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin, who took office on Dec. 7, told The Nerve that he “doesn’t know what everybody pays folks” in Hilton Head town government.

But he wasn’t surprised when informed that salaries of some town officials were higher when compared to their counterparts elsewhere.

“It’s more expensive to live here on Hilton Head Island than in Hardeeville, Ridgeville or Port Royal or some other places,” Laughlin said.

“Certainly, the goal,” Laughlin continued, “is to pay what you have to pay to have the quality of people you want and not overpay.”

Town Council last month approved a $32.7 million operating budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, which includes a tax increase projected to cost owners of a home valued at $350,000 about $11 more per year, according to a story in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet.

The new budget also includes a 1-percent merit raise for eligible employees. Laughlin, who voted for the budget, told The Nerve that the approximate $190,000 total projected cost of the raise is a fraction of the budget, and that he expects it to be offset with the loss of several positions this year through attrition.

At the same time, however, Laughlin acknowledged that “you can reasonably make an argument that there should have been no (salary) increases.”

Ward 1 Councilman Bill Ferguson, who cast the sole vote against the budget, told The Nerve last week that council members occasionally raise the issue of town employee salaries, though he added that under the town’s council-manager form of government, “we have to keep reminding ourselves we can’t go there.”

Still, Ferguson said he has been long concerned about staffing levels in most areas of town government.

“I truly feel that many of these departments we have are top heavy,” he said.

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