COMPARING PAYCHECKS: Regional government wage study shows the bigger the agency, the bigger the salary

VVN graphic by Bill Cook

VVN graphic by Bill Cook

VERDE VALLEY – One consistent message in the Cottonwood Focus on Success Economic Development Strategic Plan is that there’s good money to be made locally by landing a government job.

The report cites median household incomes of $35,216 in Cottonwood, $43,323 in Verde Village and $42,987 in Yavapai County.

But for those in public administration, the median incomes swell to $63,182 in Cottonwood, and $61,171 county-wide.

Categorically, the strategic plan cites government jobs as the best-paying in the region with an average wage of $65,782 followed by manufacturing, transportation, healthcare and education.

A wage study by Verde Valley Newspapers, Inc., shows that bigger basically is better when it comes to securing a high-paying government job in the region. The top 10 wage earners for Yavapai County, for example, average $164,758 per year. At Yavapai College, the top 10 wage earners pull in an average salary of $141,865 a year. Just those averages alone for Yavapai County and Yavapai College outpace the top wage earners for most other government agencies in the region.

Topping the list throughout the region is Yavapai College President Penny Wills, whose $277,811 annual salary exceeds the second highest paying government job in the region, held by Yavapai County Medical Examiner Mark Fischione, by $63,611.

Other top-paying government jobs in the Verde Valley and Yavapai County include:

• Cottonwood City Attorney - $193,932

• Sedona Fire District Battalion Chief/Medic - $187,343

• Yavapai College Vice President of Finance & Administrative Services -- $173,877

• Yavapai County Staff Physician - $173,400

• Yavapai County Administrator - $171,572

• Yavapai County Medical Director - $171,200

• Cottonwood City Manager - $166,980

• Sedona City Manager - $164,999

• Yavapai College Vice President of Instruction & Student Development - $164,800

• Yavapai County Staff Physician -- $163,200

Yavapai County

If the buck stops with the elected officials in Yavapai County, or even with the county administrator, it’s not always reflected in their paychecks.

“It’s certainly not the case with my paycheck,” said District 3 Yavapai County Supervisor Randy Garrison.

Garrison explained that while elected officials’ salaries are established by Arizona law, the people who work under them are paid by what the market will bear for each individual job.

Also unique to Yavapai County is the fact that six of the 10 highest paychecks among county staffers are employed in health services, yet they are not paid from the county general fund. Rather, explained County Administrator Phil Bourdon, the six-figure paychecks earned by the medical examiner, medical director, four staff physicians and all the other employees in Yavapai County Community Health Services are derived from primary care fees (75 percent) with the balance coming from a Human Resources & Services Administration grant that pays about 25 percent of personnel costs.

The judiciary and criminal prosecution services provided by the county also weigh heavily on the county payroll. The seven elected Superior Court judges and the two appointed pro-tempore judges all earn $147,175 a year, while the chief deputy county attorney earns $145,863 a year. The county administrator earns $171,572 a year.

Yavapai College

The college’s salary schedule follows a traditional hierarchal structure with the president and three vice presidents earning between $277,811 and $152,500 a year. The top 10 salaries at Yavapai College average $141,865 a year.

Municipal government

The highest paid city/town government employee in the Sedona-Verde Valley region is Cottonwood City Attorney Steve Horton at $193,932 a year.

Cottonwood is the only area municipality in which the city/town manager is not the top wage earner. As is the case with local/regional government in general, the bigger the municipality, the bigger the paychecks.

Further, explained Cottonwood City Manager Doug Bartosh, comparing one town to another is not always an apples-to-apples comparison. “For example,’ said Bartosh, “most other jurisdictions don’t have fire departments, water or sewer, and a large recreation program. It is not equal comparisons.  The years in the position are also important.”

City/town manager salaries in the Sedona-Verde Valley region range between a high of $166,980 in Cottonwood to $65,989 in Jerome, which double-tasks its manager with the town clerk responsibilities. The average salary of the six city/town managers in the Sedona-Verde Valley region is about $103,000 annually.

Schools

As is the case with Yavapai College, school districts in the Sedona-Verde Valley region follow a traditional hierarchal structure with superintendents and business managers earning the biggest paychecks followed, in most cases, by campus principals.

The superintendents in the Sedona, Mingus Union (whose superintendent also serves as the campus principal) and Camp Verde districts are the only local educators who earn six-figure salaries annually with the Sedona-Oak Creek superintendent topping the list at $120,000 annually.

True to the pattern of the smaller the government entity, the smaller the paycheck, the lowest paid superintendents in the region are those in the single-school Clarkdale-Jerome and Beaver Creek districts at less than $90,000 annually with the Cottonwood-Oak Creek chief coming in at just under $100,000 a year.

Fire Districts

The fire chiefs in the three fire districts in the Sedona-Verde Valley region average about $130,000 a year with Sedona Chief Kris Kazian topping the list at $157,976.

But it’s not the fire chiefs that earn the biggest paycheck among fire professionals in the region. That distinction, at $187,343 a year, goes to the battalion chief/medic with the Sedona Fire District, whose overtime earnings alone totaled $73,396 last year.

It bears emphasis, explained Kazian, that not all overtime wages earned are paid by Sedona Fire District taxpayers.

“Please note the number of hours the folks working wildland are putting in,” noted Kazian. “All agencies who fight wildland fires are reimbursed by either State Lands, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) or the Federal Government – United States Forest Service.”

Just as Bartosh explained that comparisons between individual municipalities deserve close scrutiny, Verde Valley Fire District Chief Nazih Hazime, who also formerly served as chief of the Sedona district, said the same holds true for fire districts.

For example, Verde Valley Fire and the Copper Canyon Fire & Medical Authority personnel do not incur nearly as much overtime as the Sedona Fire District does.

“They do more because they are a bigger department,” Hazime said of Sedona’s wildland fire-fighting efforts that are reimbursed by federal and tribal agencies. “They can deploy more people than we can.”

Hazime also said a cooperative reserve program between Verde Valley Fire District and Copper Canyon Fire and Medical Authority has helped both departments curb their overtime expenses.

More than anything, though, Hazime said basic topography represents the biggest difference in the challenges fire professionals in the Sedona Fire District are confronted with as opposed to Verde Valley and Copper Canyon.

“Sedona has significant challenges with rescues operations; people stuck on the side of cliffs. That is highly technical work,” said Hazime. “I would think wildland calls are much the same, and swift-water rescues are much the same. We have more highway accidents, and Copper Canyon also has a high number of calls on the Interstate. For us, the big difference is that we are right in the center of all the area fire districts. We probably have more auto aid responses than the other agencies do, but we certainly utilize (the other agencies) to come into our district as well.”

Sedona Chief Kazian said his district encompasses 168 square miles of fire protection responsibilities and 274 square miles of EMS responsibility. Last year, Sedona personnel responded to 3,000 medical calls and did 2,262 medical transports.

As for wages, local fire districts basically follow the “bigger is better” government philosophy. The average base wage (excluding overtime) for the top five salaries in the Sedona district is $115,004 per year, followed by Verde Valley at $108,660 and Copper Canyon at $84,918.

“The specific industry drives the salary,” said Chief Kazian. “Overtime is a tricky thing to look at as well; nearly impossible to eliminate and in some cases more cost effective to pay overtime than hire more people.”

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