Ports Authority Chief Cruising toward Top of Pay Scale

December 7, 2011

Investigative Reports

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By ERIC WARD

port-of-charleston

Supposedly high performance. Definitely high pay.

Jim Newsome, the chief administrator of the S.C. State Ports Authority, could end up being the highest-paid state employee this fiscal year after the Ports Authority board recently raised his salary from $300,000 to $350,000.

The $50,000 raise also could boost Newsome’s potential yearly bonus, which was a maximum $125,000 prior to his recent pay hike.

The good life doesn’t end there for Newsome, though.

Under a contract as president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, he also receives perks that include a membership in the Harbour Club, a ritzy dining and recreation establishment in Charleston.

The State Ports Authority (SPA) is nice work for other high-ranking administrators at the agency, too, including no fewer than 11 vice presidents, all of whom earn six-figure salaries ranging from $125,000 to $225,000.

Most of those VPs, along with a bevy of other well-paid Ports Authority employees, also have received handsome raises since 2009. In some cases, job-title changes were involved. In other cases, not so much.

Overall, the agency has about 475 full-time employees. Of those, roughly 90 – close to one in five – earn salaries exceeding $50,000.

This picture of SPA compensation comes to light through records The Nerve obtained using the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. The documents include a copy of Newsome’s contract; a copy of the contract for his predecessor, Bernard Gloseclose; and three years of salary data for all Ports Authority employees who make more than $50,000 per year.

For most state agencies, such salary figures can be readily accessed from an online database the S.C. Budget and Control Board maintains. The Ports Authority, however, is not part of that reporting system.

That’s one mark against the SPA when it comes to transparency.

But the agency was on the ball in responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from The Nerve for the contracts and salary data. The Ports Authority provided all of the information sought under the law in a prompt, complete and cost-free manner.

That stands in stark contrast to several state agencies, notably the Department of Commerce and the S.C. Research Authority, as well as many local governments across South Carolina.

As The Nerve reported last week, some agencies and local jurisdictions flout the state’s open-government law or charge exorbitant fees to comply with it and take seemingly forever to do so.

The nine-member Ports Authority board approved the $50,000 raise for Newsome, and extended his contract for seven years, in November.

The board includes some of the biggest political movers and shakers in the state, including former South Carolina Republican Party Chairwoman Karen Floyd and former state Attorney General Henry McMaster, also a Republican.

Without the raise, Newsome was eligible for up to $425,000 in total pay this fiscal year – his previous salary of $300,000 plus a bonus topping out at $125,000, according to his contract and a bonus formula the SPA board has approved for him.

The formula is based on the Ports Authority’s operating cash flow and volume of cargo and cruise ship passengers.

With the $50,000 increase, depending on any contract adjustments and how the numbers shake out, Newsome could now be eligible for nearly $500,000 in total compensation, at least in future years if not this year.

That close-to-half-a-million-dollars mark is arrived at by adding Newsome’s new base salary ($350,000) and his maximum potential bonus based on the formula (about $144,000).

The Ports Authority did not provide details of the board-approved changes to Newsome’s employment agreement.

Byron Miller, SPA spokesman and one of the agency’s vice presidents, said in an email Tuesday that the changes had not been signed. When they are, the Ports Authority will provide that information, Miller said.

With his $50,000 raise and possibly a bigger max bonus, Newsome could become the highest-paid state employee in South Carolina, vaulting past Lonnie Carter, who takes home a little more than $400,000 per year as president and CEO of Santee Cooper; and Robert Borden, who makes $485,000 as CEO and chief investment officer of the Retirement System Investment Commission.

Like Newsome, Borden is eligible for a fat yearly bonus, which ordinarily would keep him in the top slot. But on Friday, Borden submitted a letter of resignation, while offering in the letter his “continued services for 60 days at the pleasure of the commission.”

Newsome’s contract originally took effect in September 2009 with a three-year term.

Since then he has received an annual bonus once – about $61,000 for fiscal 2011, according to the State Ports Authority documents.

That means Newsome earned a total of $361,000 last year.

Then there are those perks. The fringe benefits for Newsome are spelled out in his contract and include:

  • Four weeks of paid vacation;
  • A $1,000-per-month car allowance;
  • A “reasonable allowance for a country club membership”;
  • Up to $300,000 in life insurance; and
  • A Harbour Club membership.

Says the website of that exclusive dining, golf and tennis playground: “The Harbour Club celebrates diversity in a traditional Southern atmosphere where the influential social and business community leaders of Charleston connect with family, friends and colleagues.”

Although Newsome’s $361,000 take-home in 2011 is a big number, it’s in the ballpark of what other ports authority chiefs make:

  • Georgia Ports Authority director Curtis Foltz was paid a salary of about $384,000 plus some $95,000 for travel in fiscal 2010, according to open.georgia.gov.
  • Jerry Bridges, head of the Virginia Ports Authority, makes $350,000 in base pay along with an incentive package valued at up to $175,000, according to a January report by the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.
  • Also in January, the Florida Times-Union reported that the Jacksonville Port Authority had hired Paul Anderson as its director at a salary of $320,000.

Newsome became head of the S.C. State Ports Authority after the longtime former director, Bernard Groseclose, resigned in January 2009.

Groseclose had been under fire for bonuses he and several other SPA executives received for fiscal 2008 when the economy was crashing. The extra pay ranged from nearly $28,000 for Groseclose to more than $11,000 for Barbara Melvin.

A registered State House lobbyist, Melvin is another one of the SPA’s vice presidents. Her salary is $127,000, up nearly $10,000 from $117,500 in 2009.

Groseclose also was criticized for Ports Authority container volume declining toward the end of his tenure.

When he departed, Groseclose’s salary was $264,000. He became president and CEO of the SPA under contract at the end of 1998, making $163,500 at that time.

The largest bonus Groseclose received was a little more than $66,000, for 2006. But his contract did not feature any special perks such as a Harbour Club membership.

For Newsome’s part, he garners plaudits from two important voices – one in state government and one not.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said in a guest column published Thursday in The State newspaper that Newsome’s “professionalism and esteem within the global maritime community is second to none.”

Those attributes have “boosted morale and buoyed expectations in the business community and along out waterfront,” Grooms added.

Kenneth Riley, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, says he approves of Newsome’s raise and contract extension. “So far I think his leadership has been superior to anything I’ve seen in recent years,” Riley says.

For that kind of money at a state agency, it ought to be.

Reach Eric Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.