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State’s raises for 17 follow frugality talk

Transit unit says duties changed

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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Two months after state Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan said the economy was too weak to increase salaries for public sector executives, he began handing out raises to 17 managers in his department.

The increases, averaging about 9 percent, were given between January and April, when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation faced significant budget challenges and widespread criticism for its handling of a crisis set off by a light fixture that fell in a Big Dig tunnel. The increases coincided with Governor Deval Patrick’s call for public employee unions to forgo raises and pay more for health care in shared sacrifice to ease budget pressures.

The $140,000 in raises ranged from $1,462 for a senior department lawyer, Maryellen Lyons, to $17,000 for Mullan’s chief of staff, Susan Quinones, whose salary rose from $93,000 to $110,000, an 18 percent bump.

In addition to the 17 employees who received pay hikes in their current jobs, two other managers were given salary increases following promotions, according to records reviewed by the Globe under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The agency’s assistant secretary, Joseph Landolfi, defended the raises as justified because the employees have taken on new responsibilities.

He said the department will more than offset salary increases with savings of $269,000 per year, even after the raises, that will come from not filling the jobs of highly paid executives who resigned or were fired in the past four months. Landolfi said six other employees will have their salaries reduced by a total of $55,000. Those cuts, however, have not yet taken effect.

Since January, eight executives have left the department, and five have been added. The agency currently employs 209 management-level workers. Landolfi said he would not rule out adding more employees to the payroll later this year, but said the agency has no plans to fill the specific jobs of those who left in recent months.

Landolfi, Patrick’s former director of communications, is among those who received a raise, from $120,000 to $125,000, on Jan. 2.

He said the employees who received higher salaries are not necessarily working longer hours, but contended that their responsibilities increased under a 2009 law that merged several agencies, including the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, under the state Department of Transportation.

“We think that the salary adjustments are an accurate reflection of the new roles and responsibilities that managers at MassDOT have been asked to take on,’’ Landolfi said.

“This is a different agency,’’ he added. “We’ve absorbed 1,000 more employees.’’

Not everyone agreed. “In this time and age and what we’re going through in the public sector, absolutely not,’’ said Karen Bartholomew, president of United Steel Workers Local 5696, which represents about 240 state transportation employees. “How does anybody justify an 18 percent raise?’’

Landolfi said the new agency has saved $100 million since it was formed as a result of the 2009 law. But it continues to face significant challenges, including long-term debt and maintenance concerns at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and a continued practice of borrowing money to pay operating expenses for state highways.

The governor has proposed cutting $15 million from the agency’s budget for the coming year as the state struggles with lingering effects of the recession. On Monday, Mullan testified before the Legislature that the state is probably going to lose $192 million a year in federal aid.

The recent salary adjustments contrast sharply with Mullan’s actions last fall, when he blocked a 7.5 percent salary increase for Thomas Kinton, executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority. Kinton’s board was set to consider giving him a $22,000 raise, which would have brought his pay to $317,000.

Mullan, who chairs Massport’s board and serves as transportation secretary at the pleasure of the governor, said at the time that the proposed raise for Kinton was unwise, given the state of the economy.

“The action was ill-advised and untimely,’’ Mullan said in a written statement released in November. “I recognize the importance of the role Tom plays and the work that he has done, but I also know that Governor Patrick and Lieutenant Governor [Timothy P.] Murray have rightly insisted that the salaries of all public-sector executives be considered in light of the economic realities that many Massachusetts families are dealing with.’’

Kinton has since announced his retirement, effective June 1. The dollar figures of all 17 of the recent raises that Mullan handed out were smaller than Kinton would have received.

But 10 of Mullan’s employees received larger percentage increases.

Yesterday, David J. Holway — president of the National Association of Governmental Employees, which represents 1,500 MassDot employees — praised Mullan and took no issue with the raises.

“It’s great that a government agency looks at its staffing pattern from time to time and creates positions that they need and eliminates positions that they don’t need,’’ Holway said.

Other union leaders questioned the raises.

Robert Cullinane, who represents 700 toll workers as head of Teamsters Union Local 127, said his employees were required to take a cut in their health benefits as a result of the new transportation law, a requirement that Patrick justified as a shared sacrifice.

“I thought we were in the business of saving money here now,’’ he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.