Tough Questions For Water Authority About Salaries And Hiring

8:16 PM, Nov 21, 2012   |    comments
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Buffalo, N.Y. - When we last met with the Erie County Water Authority's commissioners about two months ago they were on the defensive for more politically-connected hires - giving County Executive Mark Poloncarz's brother a $55,000 a year job monitoring the contracts the authority enters into and also giving the future sister in law of Republican chairman Nick Langworthy a $55,000 a year job as the secretary to the authority's executive director.

Neither job had been advertised publicly. When we questioned the commissioners about that fact, they said they would look into changing its policy to make public all of its job openings.

And since then, the Authority has in fact made that change - it now lists all of its job openings on its website.

The three commissioners who run the authority are appointed by the county legislature and are usually hand picked by the county's Republican and Democratic party chairmen, all that leads to a symbiotic relationship between the three groups.

And so when I asked the Republican commissioner, Earl Jann, how Langworthy's future sister in law got her job, it opened a window into how the politically well-connected have been getting very well paying jobs at the authority for years.

Scott Brown: "Did he (Langworthy) contact you or did anybody from the Republican party contact you (about the job)?

Commissioner Earl Jann: "No, actually I contacted him and asked him if he had any people that he was looking for, any people that were looking for jobs."

Scott Brown: "Why not just post the job and let everybody in Western New York have a shot at it?"

Earl Jann: "Well we do that now."

Scott Brown: "You do that now, but you didn't do that then."

Earl Jann: "That's a change that we made here recently."

Another change the authority made this year was in the rent it pays for its headquarters at the Ellicott Square Building.

After 2 On your side did a story questioning why the authority was paying $263,000 a year in rent, the authority decided it didn't need as much space, and it was able to reduce its rent by about $45,000 dollars a year.

All this is somewhat typical of how the authority operates - when changes are made, it's usually as a result of bad publicity.

The authority, for its part feels it's gotten a bad rap.

Executive Director Bob Mendez: "Over the last 15 years we've reduced our workforce by 26% while simultaneously increasing the number of customers by over 30%."

Scott Brown: "Would you say that with all the reductions in staff that this was a bloated workforce for many years?"

Bob Mendez: "I am not going to comment on my predecessor but I think the numbers speak for themselves."

Two months ago, we also asked the Authority's commissioners if they would take a hard look at the salaries it pays some of its employees.

Almost ten percent make $90,000 a year or more.

We decided to compare the salaries of some top officials at the authority to those in Erie County government.

It's important to point out the county is about 20 times the size of the water authority, yet we found that authority's salaries for similar positions are significantly higher.

So for instance, the deputy county executive makes $103,000 a year, the deputy director of the authority makes $137,000.

The county's public works commissioner, an engineer makes $119,000, while the top engineer at the water authority makes $144,000.

The head of personnel for the county which has about 4,500 employees makes $104,000 while the head of personnel for authority which has about 250 employees makes $144,000.

Scott Brown: "Would you agree that some of your salaries are out of line?"

Commissioner Earl Jann: "No I don't agree with that. We participate in the American Water Association salary studies, we looked at all those salaries and we are right in line with that cost."

Then Jann began speaking specifically about the authority's deputy director Robert Lichtenthal, he's a former authority commissioner who got his current job without the position being made available to the public. Again Lichtenthal makes $137,000 a year.

Commissioner Earl Jann: "The fact is he's done a tremendous job in reducing our debt service, reducing the amount of debt the authority has."

Scott Brown: "I'm not questioning people's job performance, I'm questioning their salaries. Erie County's budget is 20 times larger than yours is, 20 times and yet you're paying people significantly more- ten and twenty and thirty thousand dollars a year more than even Erie County is.

Commissioner Earl Jann: "If that's the case and I'll take your word for it, then it is what it is, all I can tell you is that you've got what you pay for. When it comes to the ratepayers I want to emphasize that we have the second lowest rates in all of Western New York."

Just last week, the authority announced that those rates will be going up next year by about 5% when it added a $12 yearly surcharge to its bills, with the additional money being dedicated to pay for infrastructure improvements in its system.

The bill for a typical authority customer next year will be $272 dollars, that's virtually identical to the $271 a year the Monroe County Water Authority system in Rochester will charge next year.

The Monroe County Authority has also come under criticism for politically connected jobs and high salaries.

Two and a half years ago, Jack O'Donnell was named one of the authority's three commissioners.

O'Donnell, who was not the choice of the Democratic party chairman, took the position pledging to try and reform the authority's politically based ways.

Scott Brown: "Do you think there's been enough reform here?"

Commissioner Jack O'Donnell: "You can never have enough reform. What we've been trying to do is every day, every week is provide a better service at better rates and do more for the rate payers. And we're moving in that direction. Whether it's posting these jobs on line, having a serious hiring policy. Whether it's saving money in the rent, something we've talked about with you in detail.

"We've got a responsibility to be out there talking to people and telling them what we're doing. And the truth is we need their confidence and we've got to be prepared to answer those questions, no matter how tough they are."

Scott Brown: "Do you think when people see the political hires going on here and the salaries that you do have the public's confidence?"

Commissioner Jack O'Donnell: "I think that challenges the public's confidence and that's part of why we've made these changes. We're posting jobs sites, we're trying to be better, we want to earn their confidence back."


























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