The Fairfax County water authority wants ratepayers to give its retiring general manager an annual pension worth nearly twice what he has earned.
If the utility's board approves the unprecedented bonus, Charlie C. Crowder Jr. would be credited for 24 years of service instead of the 12 he has worked. He would receive $80,330 a year from Fairfax, adjusted for inflation, up from the $45,265 pension he otherwise would be entitled to, according to a memorandum prepared for the board. Crowder already receives a $28,400 annual pension from the city of Newport News, Va., his former employer.
Authority officials said they hope to set a new policy with Crowder by sweetening the pensions for future executives who might not otherwise qualify for full retirement benefits.
The proposal by several long-serving members is roiling the low-profile board of Virginia's largest water utility, which serves 1.3 million residents in Fairfax and parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties. Opponents say they are wary of spending public money on additional compensation to an employee, even the top manager, for doing his job. Supporters say Crowder deserves the extra money and call their colleagues a disgruntled minority.
"It doesn't seem right," board member A. Dewey Bond said. "Not that I feel Mr. Crowder hasn't done a good job, but this is going to set a bad precedent. We have other people who have come to us with experience, and they're not getting credit for it."
Crowder turns 65 next week and has announced plans to retire at the end of the year. He earns about $170,000 annually, several board members said.
Board Chairman Harry F. Day said that when Crowder was promoted to general manager in 1993 after serving briefly as deputy, "We had an understanding with him" that he would be compensated for extra years of service when he retired.
"You don't bring in a 40- to 50-year-old guy with a lot of years under his belt and say, 'You're going to start [new] in the retirement system,' " Day said. "This is not a reward. It's a matter of just compensation."
He said "every decision we make" involves ratepayers' money and called opponents' concerns a "red herring."
Day said Fairfax Water is a nationally recognized utility where "a lot of people want a top job" but said the authority still needs to offer incentives to attract the best candidates.
The board is likely to vote on the proposal in September, members said.
Crowder did not return calls to his home yesterday.
Authority officials said increased pension benefits are common in local governments seeking to attract top talent. But the practice runs counter to a county ordinance that prohibits compensating one employee or group with extra benefits not offered to others. The Board of Supervisors appoints the utility's board, but it operates independently and is not subject to that policy.
Montgomery County and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the utility serving Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have policies similar to Fairfax County's.
Fairfax Water officials said their retirement plan does not address enhanced pensions, making Crowder's proposed package legal. The increased payments for Crowder and future hires would come from the regular retirement fund, Day said, which has a balance of about $100 million.
Crowder is widely respected and oversees nearly 400 employees. Day cited the authority's AAA bond rating, lean staffing and low rates as examples of the general manager's "extraordinary" performance.
The utility, established in 1957 to form a unified water system in Fairfax, operates four plants that generate 230 million gallons a day. Ratepayers have the lowest rates in the Washington region, rising about a nickel a year. The authority is designing a $60 million system of emergency generators to protect against a system failure that left customers without reliable drinking water for three days after Hurricane Isabel swept through the area in 2003.
The enhanced pension was first suggested by Bill G. Evans the board's longest-serving member, appointed in 1970. "His is a very special case that needs special attention," Evans wrote of Crowder on May 31 in a memo to the board. "I believe that he will have left a large imprint on Fairfax Water," he continued, citing "new heights of quality facilities, quality treatment of product" and improved customer service.
But other board members said Crowder's performance is beside the point.
"He did a job and he did it satisfactorily," Paul J. Andino said. "But I don't think it was anything that would say he was worth any more that what he was getting [from the pension fund]. We're a nonprofit organization, and everything he gets is going to come from the ratepayers."
The board has the least turnover of Fairfax County's many volunteer boards and commissions, leading some newer members to question whether some of their colleagues have become entrenched.
"People who are appointed to represent their community . . . need to maintain an appropriate distance from the agency they're overseeing," said Burton J. Rubin, a member since 1984 who opposes the plan.
Responded Day, appointed in 1987: "There's no danger of entrenchment. . . . Part of the reason we've been so successful is that we don't have new people coming on and off."