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Salaries for local public executives have wide range throughout valley

Towns, county, education and health executives garner six figures

by Mark Reaman

It is the end of budget time for most public entities, and after receiving several requests from people who wonder what those who run the public organizations in the area make in terms of salary, we decided to find out.

We asked the managers, directors and financial officers at Gunnison County, the City of Gunnison, the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested, Gunnison Valley Health, the Gunnison Watershed School District and Western State Colorado University to supply us with their salary bases.

The top executive positions range from $110,000 to $277,000 and department heads earn from about $60,000 to $160,000, depending on their experience. Not all 2018 compensation details have been finalized but this summary gives a good idea of where people are in terms of compensation. The following list focuses on the ranges of compensation for public executives working around Gunnison County.

Gunnison County

The county pays most department heads between $95,000 and $134,000, depending on experience. County finance director Linda Nienhueser said benefit packages include health/dental/vision/life insurance options with a portion of the premiums paid by the county, up to five percent retirement contributions, and normal FICA taxes.

County manager Matthew Birnie said that while the county tries to remain competitive to attract top talent when a position opens up, most department heads who have been hired from outside the valley have taken “a significant pay cut” to work for the county. “We have been able to recruit remarkably talented people who are attracted to our quality of life, but we have to balance that with compensation to address the high cost of living and housing challenges,” he said.

The top county executives are on a contract with the county. County manager Birnie makes $176,009 in base salary and has a benefit package that includes a car and house allowance and additional retirement contribution, bringing his total salary to $225,770. The assistant county manager is paid $147,000.

The county publishes salary information in the newspaper twice a year, according to Nienhueser. The February report is by job title, with total wages paid for the prior year; the August report is by job title with monthly salary as of June 30 that year.

Town of Crested Butte

Crested Butte finance director Lois Rozman said the town has a tiered benefit system that increases with an employee’s years of service, rewarding them for longevity and helping the town keep good employees. The average cost of benefits for department heads and the town manager is an additional 29 percent of their salaries.

Town manager Dara MacDonald is under a year-to-year contract with the Town Council and currently makes $114,000 annually. She also has use of a town car and use of a town-owned, single-family residence in the Paradise Park subdivision. Department heads are paid within a salary range for each position according to experience. For example, the finance/human resources director has a salary range of $94,812 to $123,256. Rozman currently fills that position (but is retiring at the end of the year after 25 years) and makes $99,000.

City of Gunnison

The Gunnison City Council has not yet signed a 2018 contract with city manager Russ Forrest. Based on the city’s salary comparison document, comparing wages to other communities similar to the city of Gunnison, an entry-level city manager would start at about $121,000 and an experienced manager averages $163,000. Forrest negotiated a salary of $148,000 for 2017. The city also matches up to 10 percent of his salary toward retirement, whereas all other employees receive a five percent match.

Based on the city’s salary range document, department heads on average make from $78,400 for the city clerk to $112,300 for the community development director.

City finance director Ben Cowan said benefits include medical, vision, dental and life insurance. The city matches up to five percent of their gross wages for retirement. You can find more information regarding the city’s various employee benefits on the city of Gunnison’s website.

Mt. Crested Butte

In Mt. Crested Butte the salary ranges for positions are also based on experience. Department head positions range from beginning salaries of $60,000 to up to $95,000 for experienced personnel such as the police chief and finance director. The town manager position range is listed as between $95,000 and $115,000. Town manager Joe Fitzpatrick made $110,000 in 2017. Benefits that include items such as insurance and retirement contributions range from an additional $19,400 to $27,000 per department head.

Western State Colorado University

The administrators at Western State Colorado University are part of the Colorado State University System. WSCU president Greg Salsbury has a base salary of $232,966 and received a $45,000 bonus last year. Top administration positions receive from $56,142 for the registrar to $142,368 for the executive vice president, who also received a $6,700 bonus. All receive an additional benefits package that includes insurance and retirement benefits.

Gunnison Valley Health

Like other major organizations in the region, Gunnison Valley Health has developed formal wage ranges for executive positions. According to GVH director of human resources Christina Lovelace, “We utilize two salary surveys to create our wage ranges to ensure we’re paying our teammates competitively for both our type of organization and within our region and other resort communities. The two surveys come from the Employers Council and Colorado Hospital Association (CHA). They allow us to evaluate healthcare wages for rural environments, but also for resort communities which gives us a strong competitive balanced midpoint, or ‘going rate’ based on a weighted average of wages actually paid for each position at other organizations.”

Chief executive officers of rural health care systems have a standard salary range between $211,187 and $316,780. Gunnison Valley Health CEO Rob Santilli has a base salary of $277,000. The hospital’s chief financial officer has a salary of $164,000. Benefits for department heads include comprehensive insurance benefits, along with retirement contributions.

Lovelace said the compensation philosophy at GVH “is to encourage and reward measurable performance and behaviors, related experience, experience within the organization, and education, all within the financial means of the organization and at a competitive rate.”

Gunnison School District

The superintendent of the RE1J school district, Doug Tredway, said, “Salaries are based on years of experience in the position. All district employees who work more than 30 hours receive the same single health benefit. The current value is $8,640 per year.”

The superintendent is the highest paid administrator, at $117,450. Principal salaries throughout the district range from about $74,000 to $104,000.

One of the biggest benefits in the school district is the retirement contribution. Tredway explained that all school employees and many state employees are members of Colorado PERA, the Public Employees Retirement Association. Employees and employers contribute to the retirement plan. At present, employers contribute 20 percent of an employee’s salary and employees contribute 8 percent of their salary to the retirement plan.

Tredway says more information is available on the district website under District and Financial Transparency.

Outlier executives

Other public executive positions throughout the region bring in six-figure salaries as well. But one significant difference is that some of those executives are under individual contract with their boards and thus do not receive the benefit package associated with the county or town employees. For example, the executive directors of both the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority and the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association make more than $100,000 annually but they have to pay for their own health insurance as private business contractors, and they also have to deduct payroll taxes as individuals, which can be twice as much as what is taken out by an employer. They also do not have any matching retirement contributions.

Public executives are paid through tax dollars and most salaries and benefit packages are either listed online or published regularly.

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