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Publishing public pay peeves public

November 14, 2004|by LIZ THOMPSON

Nothing sparks as much reader feedback as when we publish the salaries of public employees.

On Saturday, Nov. 6, The Herald-Mail published the overtime salaries for employees who work at the Forty West Landfill in Washington County. At some point, so long ago apparently that no one remembers why, landfill employees and county officials negotiated a contract that required landfill employees to work six days a week. The sixth day, a Saturday, is paid in overtime every week.

What that adds up to is as much as $16,000 per year in overtime. Add that to base salaries and landfill workers, in some cases, are earning just under $50,000.

We found that fascinating and thought that our readers - many of whom pay those salaries through their taxes - would find it fascinating, too.

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Right away, we heard from people who didn't like the fact we published those salaries.

"Mail Call" and "You Said It" call-in comments chastised us for running that information.

One man e-mailed the executive editor with a request. "Would you please send me your salary for the years 2003 and 2004. I would like to write a letter to the editor and include the wages your made for those years," he said in the e-mail.

Sure thing ... if the taxpayers were footing the bill. They're not. We're a private company.

The executive editor, Terry Headlee, said it much better in his response to the writer.

"We occasionally publish the salaries of public employees for accountability purposes. Whenever a person works for a publicly funded agency or government then his or her compensation is public information," he said in the response.

"... Every person in this county who owns real or personal property must pay taxes. They have no choice. This is why there is a greater interest by taxpayers in knowing how their money is being spent by the government," Headlee said in his response.

We try to publish the top public salaries of government employees occasionally. In fact, we're preparing to do that again in the coming weeks.

We already have received listings of all salaries of $60,000 or more for employees of Washington County government, the City of Hagerstown and the Washington County Board of Education for fiscal years 2003 and 2004.

We also asked for overtime information, some of which we also will publish. That's how we learned about the landfill salaries. That information was so unusual that we wrote a story about it right away.

We've written about public employees' salaries often enough to know that the top overtime payouts in the City of Hagerstown go to police officers. That makes sense. They have to go to court when they are supposed to be off duty. They work overtime on special investigations or on cases that develop before the end of a shift.

What we learned about county overtime was that - at least for the last two years - more than half of the top 10 payouts for overtime for county government employees went to landfill employees.

I don't expect much more in the way of surprising information related to the salaries. But I do think it is information taxpayers want to know.

And in the coming weeks, they will.




Liz Thompson is city editor of The Herald-Mail. She may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7682, or by e-mail at lizt@herald-mail.com.

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