Monday, January 13, 2020
Because our city manager is directly appointed by city council, comparing his salary with presidential appointees is more appropriate than with the federal government's senior executive service (SES). Cabinet secretaries, the White House chief of staff, Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, Office of Management and Budget director, U.N. ambassador, and U.S. trade representative are all paid the same base salary (in FY 2019, $210,700 annually).
But let's not fool ourselves: running a city of Alexandria's size requires a very high level of administrative skill, especially since we do not have an executive mayor the way D.C. does. An effective city manager can save taxpayers millions of dollars by effectively managing city resources and can be worth every penny of a seemingly exorbitant $300,000 annual salary.
The worst job in the list of salaries is our Transportation and Environmental Services director. When there's a blizzard which closes city hall, most city department heads are at home, but the T&ES director is stuck in a snowplow someplace. More so than the city manager, this position is responsible for correctly anticipating a winter storm's characteristics to gauge the proper road treatment (e.g., sand versus brine versus rock salt). On those decisions sits the ability of the city and metro area to function the following day, with far-reaching implications (e.g., one day of shutdown operations costs the federal govt. alone an estimated $90 mil.). Refuse, recycling, road repair, E-scooter policy, etc. all come under T&ES, so I was surprised the director is not better paid.
Nevertheless, Townsend A. "Van" Van Fleet's letter raises a compelling question for which city council, which sets the city manager's salary, should be held accountable to answer: Why are we paying our city manager so much more than a Cabinet secretary? How is overseeing a city of 150,000 on 15 square miles so much more complex and demanding than running the Defense Department (or even a relatively small outfit like the U.S. Labor Department) or our country's relations with 200 other countries at the U.N.?