Despite low cost of living, Oklahoma City worker pay is pretty high

By Arthur Kane | Watchdog.org

Oklahoma City’s budget touts its 2011 Forbes Magazine designation as one of “America’s Most Affordable Cities,” but many city employees are still raking in big salaries. That same 2014-15 budget warns those salary increases may leave it with a nearly $30 million gap.

The high salaries start at the top. Oklahoma City Manager James Couch’s pay in fiscal 2014 was $237,676.81, near the top of chief appointed officials in cities of similar size.

BIG PAY: Oklahoma City manager James Couch makes more than the national average

According to a database of Oklahoma City salaries obtained by Watchdog.org, about 10 percent of Oklahoma City employees make more than $100,000 a year.

Jonathan Small, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a limited-government, free-market think tank, said state and local officials have been good at diverting attention from their spending.

“Oklahoma politicians have been very successful at getting constituents to focus on federal spending, federal government overspending, and not focus on growing local spending levels, which are at an all-time high,” Small said.

But Dianna Berry, the city’s human resources director, said the city conducts salary surveys to make sure the compensation is competitive and hypothesized that a large number of city employees make six figures because they have been with the city for a long time.

“Some of that may be longevity in position,” she said. “Those salaries are negotiated in the (union) contract.”

But the city’s 2014-15 budget warns increasing salaries would result in a $28.9 million budget deficit by 2019 the city must close.

“Since Personal Services are the majority of City costs, controlling the growth in this area will be a major key to maintaining financial balance,” according to the budget document. “The most effective means to achieve a balance between controlling personnel costs while maintaining competitive salary and benefit packages for employees in the future will be to limit salary and benefit growth to within the approximate growth rates of City revenues.”

The city’s top job outpaced projected growth, records show. Couch’s salary grew 4.21 percent between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2014, while the average annual increase to city revenue is projected to be 3.7 percent. His pay is set by the mayor and City Council, so Berry declined to comment on Couch’s pay.

A 10 percent reduction in salaries of people who make more than $100,000 would save the city nearly $6 million a year, easily closing that $28.9 million gap in the next five years, an analysis of the city pay database shows.

Reducing Oklahoma City’s top salaries isn’t out of line since national statistics show the salaries are high, but Small said it’s unlikely the city would reverse previous raises.

A study this year by the International City/County Management Association shows, on average, chief appointed officials in cities of 500,000 to 1 million people made a median of $183,250 in 2013, and the average was a little less. In the 2013 fiscal year, Couch made $228,065.84, or nearly $45,000 more. The maximum salary for a city manager last year in a city the size of Oklahoma City was about $245,000 last year, according to the report.

Couch also makes substantially more than he might in the private sector. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the average chief executive officer of an Oklahoma business made $144,880 last year. It’s not clear if those figures include any other compensation, such as bonuses or stock options.

Oklahoma City spokeswoman Kristy Yager said Couch has a large salary because he has been with the city since 1987.

“A big part of it is having the city manager willing to stick around and willing to work in the city,” she said.

But Small said there is only so much benefit to a city manager sticking around for years because his responsibilities don’t increase that much. “It’s not like he’s going to take on additional police departments or other cities.”

Couch is not alone in taking home a lot of the taxpayers’ money. Nearly 500 city employees have salaries of $100,000 or more in 2014.

About 77 percent of the Oklahoma City staff making more than $100,000 a year were either police or firefighters, records show, and many of those positions made more than the national average.

For example, first line police supervisors of police and detectives — there was no category for police sergeant — make an average of $76,000 nationwide, according to labor statistics, but in Oklahoma City 86 police sergeants were making more than $100,000 a year — even an officer who had a salary in excess of $100,000.

Small said a city employee making $100,000 is probably $20,000 more than married teachers make together in a city where home prices and costs are fairly modest.

“It’s huge when you consider the median household income is $50,000 to $60,000 a year depending on the county,” he said.

SALARY DEFENDER: Oklahoma City HR chief says the city’s salaries are appropriate.

But Berry said taxpayers don’t have a problem with the salaries.

“A recent survey showed approval of city services is 18 percent higher than the national average, so I think taxpayers are very satisfied,” she said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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