Six-figure state salaries raise concerns

Local,Maryland,Virginia,Hayley Peterson

Government watchdog groups are growing concerned about the lofty salaries that some state employees are paid in Virginia and Maryland.

More than 11,500 state employees earn more than six figures annually -- 6,194 in Virginia and 5,501 in Maryland, The Washington Examiner reported Wednesday. Of those, 1,165 earn at least $200,000. Most of the top earners are higher education and medical professionals, according to state records.

"In these times of austerity these kinds of salaries seem out of line," said Kimberly Burns, president of the nonprofit group Maryland Business for Responsive Government. "Public service is a very valiant and needed part of society, but some of these salaries seem extreme." University of Maryland at Baltimore President Jay Perman is earning a base salary of $710,000 and Virginia Tech professor Pendleton Montague is earning $387,600.

"I could only aspire to make that kind of money in the private sector," Burns added.

By contrast, former Maryland state employee Neil Bergsman said that when he worked for the government, he was earning six figures -- and yet it was one-third of the salary that someone with a similar job in the private sector would be making. Bergsman was formerly the chief financial officer of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

"Maryland state government compensation is in line -- and in fact, I think below -- comparable with private-sector positions," said Bergsman, now director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

Maryland Public Policy Institute President Christopher Summers argued that when pension benefits are factored into state worker salaries, then state workers appear better off than private-sector employees. About 100,000 employees work for each state.

"Surprise, surprise: It pays to be a Maryland state government worker," Summers said. "This has been known for some time."

Government workers' pension benefits were buffered from the recession, while many private-sector workers, most of whom are enrolled in 401(k) plans that are directly affected by market performance, saw their retirement savings obliterated by the recession.

Summers attributed the competitive salaries of government workers, at least in Maryland, to strong public sector unions.

But in Virginia, union membership isn't required as a function of state employment, and yet state workers' salaries are comparable with those in Maryland.

"There is no check and balance on what [government] employees get," said Fairfax County resident Frederick Costello, a retired scientist and member of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations. "I don't know where it's going to stop."

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