The $200,000 annual salary, once regarded as an extravagance in local government, is now commanded by a growing number of officials across the Washington region, according to a review of payrolls by The Washington Post.
School superintendents receive the highest salaries, as much as $250,000 annually, which are boosted by performance bonuses and benefit packages that can add tens of thousands of dollars to their compensation. They are followed closely by county administrators, police chiefs and other senior appointees, with salaries approaching or even exceeding $200,000.
Martin J. Briley, Prince William County's economic development director, for example, was paid $234,000 in 2004. Bruce Romer, Montgomery County's chief administrative officer, made $208,000. Anthony H. Griffin, Fairfax's appointed county executive, received nearly $195,000. And D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, the region's best -paid local law enforcement official, made $175,000.
The salaries are greater than those of top elected officials, including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), $145,000; Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), $143,000; and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), $132,000.
Penelope A. Gross, a Fairfax County supervisor, said the bigger dollars for appointed officials reflect competition from the private sector and the complexity of the issues requiring their attention, including homeland security; rapid development; and services for immigrants, the elderly and the disabled.
The increased scope of local government has "made this a lot more difficult than just making sure the police and fire departments have their equipment and that garbage is being picked up on time," said Gross (D-Mason), chairman of the board's personnel committee. "You need a really special person, and those people cost money."
The Post reviewed salary records from 2003 and 2004 for more than 70,000 public-sector employees in 14 counties and municipalities, including the District of Columbia and Prince George's, Montgomery , Howard and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland and Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties in Virginia. Although comparisons are difficult because some counties did not include overtime pay or part-time workers, the records provide revealing snapshots of compensation at all levels of local government.
The survey found, for example, that overtime pay -- driven by staff shortages and an increasing volume of emergency calls -- has made police officers and firefighters among the region's best-compensated government workers. Half of the 378 Montgomery employees making $100,000 or more a year are police or fire personnel. A lieutenant in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department has earned more in overtime this year ($83,364) than his base salary ($72,173).
Records also show that since the D.C. Council and the now-inactive financial control board eliminated a salary cap seven years ago, the number of employees paid $100,000 or more -- not including school officials -- has grown from about a dozen to more than 660, many of them physicians and lawyers who could command far more in private practice.
Competition from the private sector is not the only factor contributing to the increase in the region's local government salaries. Other cities and counties, eager to recruit managers capable of contending with clogged roadways, crime and economic development, are helping to heat up the job market.
"You have more savvy people running for office in these communities, and they understand that you need a professional to deal with these issues," said Jacqueline Byers, the research director for the National Association of Counties. "For a while in the mid-1990s, if you were making $100,000, it was pretty good for a county manager, but it has been creeping up. Then it was $175,000, and now $200,000 is going to be a competitive salary pretty soon."
Comparisons with the federal government are difficult, in part because Congress has set limits on what top executives may be paid. A Cabinet secretary, for instance, receives $175,700, and most top political appointees are paid $128,200 to $158,100. The government's career executives earn $104,927 to $158,100.
School superintendents began earning substantially more than other top local officials in the 1980s, Byers said, as housing markets boomed and quality schools became a priority for home buyers with children. "That broadened the desire of many communities to make their schools better-performing to attract the well-to-do, and the ones that were underperforming were looking for superintendents to make their districts more attractive," Byers said.
Nationwide, the median salary of superintendents in districts with more than 25,000 students is $174,805, according to the Education Research Service, an Arlington-based foundation.