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Patrick takes aim at agency salaries

Hefty payrolls at state’s independent bodies attract new scrutiny

One possible target for a pay cut is James E. Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. One possible target for a pay cut is James E. Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.
By Michael Levenson and Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / February 27, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick, who has forced out a number of top executives at independent state agencies, is now planning to slash salaries at the agencies, where many top-level staffers earn more than twice his annual pay of $140,000.

Gregory Bialecki, the governor’s secretary of housing and economic development, said Patrick is reviewing salaries for chief executives and lower-level workers at the state’s 42 independent agencies and will reduce those he believes are excessive. In some cases, Bialecki said, the governor will also seek to combine agencies or eliminate jobs to further cut costs in the next year.

“We are trying to take a very big-picture look,’’ said Bialecki, Patrick’s point man on the agencies.

In seeking to trim and combine the agencies, the governor is forging ahead with a vow he made four years ago, to seize control of a constellation of agencies that operate beyond his direct control. The agencies, which were designed to function without political interference, are not considered fully public because they do not rely solely on state aid for their operations and answer to independent boards.

Ranging from six to 6,000 employees, they include 15 regional transit authorities; 12 larger authorities such as the MBTA and the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan International Airport; and 15 specialized and often obscure agencies like the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp., which doles out venture capital.

Base salaries for the chiefs at the agencies — not including benefit and severance packages — range from $72,100 for the administrator of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to $299,000 for the president of MassDevelopment, according to the most recent data available. Twelve of the 42 agency heads earn more than $200,000 annually. Twenty-four earn more than the governor.

When he took office in 2007, Patrick, like many of his predecessors, expressed frustration that he could not directly control the agencies because their boards were dominated by appointees from previous administrations. But over the past four years, Patrick has filled the boards with his own appointees, and last year he signed legislation that increased his power over six of the agencies. Now he is moving aggressively to remake them as he sees fit.

In recent months, Patrick has removed the heads of five of the agencies, all holdovers from previous administrations. He has said that in most of those cases, he wanted executives who were committed to his agenda, although he has not cited specific examples where the officials ran afoul of his priorities.

In aiming to cut salaries at the agencies, Patrick is taking a controversial step that some say could make it harder to attract top talent.

Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the administration needs to be careful about reducing salaries across the board.

“They should make a judgment about the scope and responsibilities of each position and what it would take to recruit a good person,’’ Widmer said. “It’s important to make judgments about what salaries are necessary to recruit the kind of people who will do a good job.’’

And not everyone agrees that salaries at the agencies need to be cut.

Stephen P. Crosby, a former state budget chief, said a review of compensation at the agencies that he led on behalf of the Patrick administration in 2009 indicated that while some severance packages were exorbitant, most salaries were reasonable.

“As a generalization, they were about industry norms just in terms of their base salaries, and didn’t seem to be wildly out of line with similar positions in similar states,’’ Crosby said. For example, his report noted that the chief executive of the New England Aquarium earned $275,000 in 2008, and the head of the Boston YMCA took home $340,000.

Bialecki said the governor has no plans to slash salaries across the board. And he did not single out any agency head by name. He said the state needs to pay executives well enough to attract top talent, but doesn’t necessarily have to match the highest salaries available in the private sector.

“We are going to be taking a look at everybody’s salary,’’ Bialecki said.

One possible target for a pay cut is James E. Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, who earns about $276,000 a year to run an agency with 190 employees and operating revenues of $52 million, and who is currently renegotiating his contract. Michelle A. Shell, chairwoman of the authority’s board, said the board wants to rehire Rooney and is examining Crosby’s recommendations on compensation.

“We’re confident we will reach an agreement soon,’’ she said in a statement.

Because the governor cannot directly cut the executives’ pay, Bialecki said Patrick will instead use his growing clout on the agencies’ boards to influence their decision-making.

But his push for control will come with a cost. Four of the executives he has pushed out — at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the Health Education Finance Authority, MassDevelopment, and the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp. — could collect more than $1 million in severance pay. Patrick is engaged in a legal fight to try to stop some of those payments, most of which were negotiated by board members appointed by previous governors.

The fifth executive, Thomas J. Kinton Jr. of Massport, announced he was leaving his $295,000-per-year job after Patrick blocked his $22,000 raise. Nonetheless, Kinton will keep a $495,000 payout for unused sick time, a perk that has since been abolished for new hires.

Bialecki said the governor’s push to cut salaries and combine agencies will help offset severance costs.

“I am confident that, even with these payouts, you are going to see the total payroll go down in the first year for most of these organizations,’’ Bialecki said.

Daniel B. Winslow, a Republican state representative who served as chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney, said Patrick is within his rights to take control of the agencies and reshape them.

“It’s very political, but that’s OK,’’ Winslow said. “He won. It’s his vision. I think the governor ought to have the ability to impose his vision on the state, and I think it’s wrong when you have a disconnect between the popular will, as expressed through the election, and the management of government.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.