Salaries for top local government officials vary with size of jurisdiction

Most officials who manage local governments in the Washington area received raises this year and make well above the median pay for chief administrative officers in similarly sized jurisdictions, according to a comparison of salary data and an annual survey by the International City/County Management Association.

The top-earning officials tend to be in the region’s largest and most affluent jurisdictions, but size and wealth aren’t everything: D.C. City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, for example, tops the salary chart at $295,000, although he didn’t receive a raise this year. He is followed by Montgomery County’s chief administrative officer, Timothy Firestine, who is paid $285,000, a 4.8 percent increase over 2013.

The chief administrative officer of Prince George’s County (pop. 900,000), who recently stepped down to return to the private sector, was paid $193,000, less than any of his peers. Next-lowest was Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, whose salary is $223,160 in a county of 350,000 residents.

“These governments are very big companies,” said Prince George's County spokesman Scott L. Peterson. “You need to pay executive-style salaries.”

It’s difficult to directly compare area jurisdictions because each government is organized differently. Some have a strong mayor or elected board, while others concentrate more power with appointed staff, which can make the top staffers more valuable.

The range in population size for localities in the Washington region is dramatic and not always reflected in relative salary. Alexandria, for example, with 151,000 residents, will pay its city manager up to $263,869 this year, while sprawling Fairfax County (pop. 1.1 million) pays $277,947.

Jurisdiction Title Current salary Raise over last year National median salary*
City of Alexandria, VA City manager $263,869 Up to 3.5%** $167,000
City attorney $223,825 Up to 3.5%**
City clerk $140,457 Up to 3.5%**
Arlington County, VA County manager $261,000 3.20% $167,000
County attorney $218,738 3.50%
Board clerk $106,496 3.50%
Montgomery County, MD Chief administrative officer $285,000 4.80% $252,500
County council administrator $218,037 3.40%
County attorney $197,600 2.30%
Fairfax County, VA County executive $277,947 2.29%*** $252,500
County attorney $220,062 2.29%
Clerk to the board $144,281 2.29%
Loudoun County, VA County administrator $223,160 3% $180,250
County attorney $186,000 2%
Prince George’s County, MD Chief administrative officer $193,000 n/a $180,250
County attorney $172,800 8%
Prince William County, VA County manager 228,339 5% $183,250
County attorney $201,687 3%
County clerk $113,962 3%
District of Columbia City administrator $295,000 0% $183,250
Attorney general $184,469 3%
*Median national salaries for chief administrative officers by population of jurisdiction.
**Salaries will be set by City Council after their annual performance evaluations in June
***$269,847 in base, $8,100 car allowance
Source: Individual jurisdictions and International City/County Management Association

The median salary for jurisdictions running governments with more than 1 million residents — locally, that includes Montgomery and Fairfax — is $252,500, according to the International City/County Management Association’s annual survey of chief administrative officers, which includes re­sponses from city and county managers and other non-elected executives.

Chuck Bean, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said three trends push the area’s government salaries higher than the median: the cost of living, the size of the counties and cities, and the complexity of government here, not to mention the past few years of tightened local budgets because of the recession and federal budget cuts.

“During the recession, several of our leaders made the same money for several years,” said Patrick Lacefield, public information officer in Montgomery County. “We also had furloughs.”

The numbers are public information but rarely discussed. Most city councils or county boards determine, in closed session, how much to pay their most highly ranked employees. But few if any announce the actual numbers when they take their public vote. The Maryland Association of Counties publishes an extensive Web site with salary, benefit and pension information; the District and Virginia governments provide the numbers within their budget documents or upon request.

The officials, who are tasked with directing government bureaucracies and reporting to elected officials, are not necessarily the most highly paid employees on the government payroll; overtime pay for police officers and firefighters can push their compensation higher. But most government employees work on a far more modest pay scale.

Setting salaries and raises usually falls to the county or city’s elected leaders, and their methods range widely. Fairfax County sends a survey out every two years to seven nearby governments — Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, Alexandria and the District — “as well as other jurisdictions across the country” that are about the same size as Fairfax, the county’s human resources department said in a statement.

Arlington County’s human resources director, Marcy Foster, said that after her department does a pay comparison with Fairfax, Prince William and Alexandria, the county manager, county attorney and county clerk do a self-assessment. The County Board also looks at the average pay increase for other county employees and its pay-for-performance program.

In Alexandria, longtime Mayor William D. Euille said that although there’s money in the recently passed budget for 3.5 percent raises for the city manager, attorney and clerk, that’s simply because the average merit raise for city employees this year was 3.5 percent. The top managers’ actual salaries won’t be set until performance reviews are completed in June, he said.

“The bottom line is they get whatever the council determines they deserve for a merit increase,” Euille said. “That 31 / 2 percent is a maximum; they may get up to that, but it won’t be more.”

New statistics from the federal government show that it simply costs more, for everybody, to live in the Washington area, as opposed to other places in the United States, said Bean, the Council of Governments chief.

“Being part of the national capital region makes things more complex,” he said. “Some of our counties are larger than a half-dozen states. They are big, multi­billion-dollar organizations with thousands of people employed, including first responders.”

Bill Turque, Arelis Hernández, Caitlin Gibson, Mike DeBonis and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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