By Mike Linn: CNJ news editor
From the first day of classes to the last day of finals — and the hot summers in between — top-level educators in Curry County are charged with running our schools.
They sit atop education’s vast pyramid, and are the highest-paid public servants in Curry County, earning more than most city, county and state employees, according to salary records obtained by the Clovis News Journal for 2003.
The records show 20 of the 25 highest-paid public officials in the county last year worked for Clovis Community College or Clovis’ public schools.
Besides educators, four state officials — all employees of the 9th Judicial District Court — and one city employee ranked among the county’s 25 highest-paid public officials.
No county employees made the top-25 list.
The newspaper obtained 2003 salaries for all employees with the city, county, state, public schools and community college through use of New Mexico’s Open Records Act.
All of the entities produced the information as requested, with the exception of Curry County. The newspaper sued the county for the records and the records were delivered a few days later. The lawsuit, which also alleges county violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act and seeks attorneys fees, is pending in 9th Judicial District Court.
The records show three public employees made more than $100,000 in 2003, led by CCC President Beverlee McClure, who earned $149,342. There were 133 public officials who made more than $50,000.
In general, public officials’ salaries compare well with those who work in the private sector, Clovis Mayor David Lansford said.
“I think it’s competitive,” he said. “I do think the city offers a good salary and benefits package to people based on their knowledge of work and their experience and their technical and professional training.”
Lansford said pay comparisons can be difficult and should be career-specific.
For example, lawyers in private practice could easily make more money than the district attorney, but they often have to pay for their own retirement and benefits.
“I think the retirement benefits that most public employees receive are, in most instances, better than (in) the private sector,” Lansford said.
When it comes to holiday and vacation time, Lansford said, the calendars of public officials are more relaxed. Often private businesses don’t grant as many paid holidays as federal, state, city and county agencies.
As in the private sector, top-level public officials often receive perks.
Public administrators and other high-ranking public officials are most likely to have vehicles and cell phones provided to them by their employer, the newspaper found.
City Manager Ray Mondragon, McClure and County Manager Geneva Cooper drive in vehicles they did not purchase. Some public officials not serving in management roles also get vehicles. Public officials who are provided with cars pay taxes for the privilege, typically about $3 a day, officials said.
As for benefits such as health insurance and retirement, managers and low-wage workers are on an equal playing field.
In addition to her $149,342 salary for 2003, McClure was supplied with a Ford Expedition, which belongs to the college, said Mike Schmidt, CCC vice president for finance and human resources.
McClure drives the car for business and personal use.
Per IRS regulations, for the calendar year 2003, the college reported $2,535 as a taxable benefit for McClure’s use of the Expedition.
McClure did not respond to several requests for comment.
According to the Board of Trustees’ contract with McClure, $12,500 of her 2003 salary was a supplemental allowance and paid as salary prorated over the year. The intent of the supplement is to aid McClure with expenses relating to her high level of external duties required by the Board of Trustees, Schmidt said. The allowance is not monitored and is included in the $149,342 salary for 2003.
“It’s kind of an incentive to stay,” CCC Board of Trustee member Russell Muffley said.
Muffley added that it helps offset McClure’s frequent trips to the state capital on behalf of the college.
“If you’re not from Albuquerque or Santa Fe, you’re not going to get much unless you really schmooze people up there,” he said.
McClure’s travel and expenditures are governed by college policy and state statute, the same as all other employees of the college.
Rebecca Rowley, CCC’s vice president for educational services, ranked second among public employees, earning $107,337 in 2003.
“The reason CCC pays well is you have to have at least a master’s degree to even teach out there, which is typical of any college,” said Gayla Brumfield, a member of CCC’s Board of Trustees. “Beverlee is an excellent president … she works very hard within the community as well as politically. I just think we’re very fortunate to have a person of her caliber.”
In New Mexico, independent community college presidents pulled in an average of $121,796 for the 2002/2003 fiscal year, according to figures from the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education. McClure’s salary puts her in the top tier of community college presidents and is comparable to Eastern New Mexico University President Steven Gamble, who made $151,891 in 2003, and is in charge of three campuses.
In all, 13 CCC employees ranked among the 25 highest-paid public officials in Curry County for 2003. Another seven in the top 25 worked for Clovis Municipal Schools.
It’s not unusual for educators to make more than county, city and state employees, said Jim Perry, director of finance and budget for the state’s Commission on Higher Education.
“If you look at the overall average for the United States, our educators are paid poorly,” he said. “If you compare (their salaries) to me, a state employee, they’re making a ton more money, but for them to move to another state they can make a fortune.”
Perry said state, city and county employees, while paid less than top educators, have far greater retirement benefits.
As a state employee, Perry receives retirement benefits from the Public Employee Retirement Association, which offers an annual 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for retired city, state and county employees. Educators are funded through the Education Retirement Association and don’t receive those benefits, he said.
“It’s all relative,” he said. “I like my retirement better than theirs. The retirement for them is not that good. For me, I’d like to retire from the state and go work in one of those institutions for a while, then I can make myself some nice money.”
Curry County Manager Geneva Cooper earned $62,897.50 in 2003, ranking her the 46th highest-paid public employee for that year. She was the only county official to make more than $50,000 in 2003.
Steve Kopelman, risk manager for the New Mexico Association of Counties and a former county attorney in Santa Fe County, said it’s not unusual for county employees to make less than public officials working for other entities.
“Counties statewide are really hurting financially now and part of the reason are the jails. The jails are really breaking a lot of the counties’ backs,” he said. “It certainly effects county employee salaries.”
Even so, Cooper’s salary compares poorly to that of Eddy County Manager Steve Massey, who makes $95,000 annually but is not provided a vehicle like Cooper.
Eddy County’s population is about 51,000, or about 5,000 more than Curry County.
There are five Eddy County employees who make over $50,000, Massey said.
Curry County officials approved a budget in June that slates spending at roughly $2.3 million more than last fiscal year. About $1.3 million will fund a jail annex for the county detention center, as officials have had to send prisoners out of state to alleviate overcrowding issues.
Clovis City Manager Ray Mondragon pulled in a total of $139,507 in 2003, but $35,000 came from a pension he receives from his 27 years with the Clovis Police Department. Mondragon was Clovis’ police chief from November 1999 to September 2001.
As city manager, Mondragon was the third-highest paid public official in Curry County, making $104,507 in 2003.
But those figures can be misleading, Mondragon said.
As a contracted employee, Mondragon did not receive benefits or retirement. He said he paid about $6,000 a year in gross receipts tax since he is an independent consultant for the city.
On Aug. 19, the city commission voted to make Mondragon an at-will city employee with annual salary of $95,000. As a city employee, he will be eligible for city benefits and will not have to pay gross receipts taxes on his wages.
A recent change in a Public Employee Retirement Association allows Mondragon to collect his pension and still be a city employee. The change prompted Mondragon’s decision to make the switch from independent contractor to city employee, City Attorney David Richards said.
His salary is comparable to that of Carlsbad City Administrator Jon Tully, who makes $95,160 annually and has been city administrator almost 12 years. Unlike Mondragon, Tully receives a benefits and retirement package.
Mondragon said being city manager is “not a 40-hour-a-week job.”
He is in charge of the city’s budget, attends almost all committee meetings and generates monthly reports for each of the city’s departments.
He said he usually works about two hours on Sunday to get prepared for the week.
While the hours are long, Mondragon said,“I enjoy dealing with the public. You never know what kind of complaints you’re going to get, from a pothole to a dumpster that’s rotted out, to weeds that are growing to neighbors that are not getting along. The job has various, various subjects.”
The least favorite part of his job, he said, is dealing with the media.
“I do work with the media. I feel like I communicate very well, but there are times when the media select stories or subjects to write about that are very trivial,” he said.
In addition to his salary, Mondragon is provided a city car — a 2001 Buick LeSabre seized during a drug raid by the Region Five Drug Task force.
He said city vehicles and cell phones are provided for most of the city’s department heads, city officials on call and workers with the street department.
Neil Nuttall, superintendent for Clovis Municipal Schools, ranks fourth on the list after pulling in $97,192 in 2003.
Eleonore Isham, Clovis Community College vice president for information and technology, rounds out the top five. She earned $89,344.