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Oregon Prison Chief’s Pay Raise Revoked; He Must Survive on Only $14,500 a Month

Oregon Prison Chief’s Pay Raise Revoked; He Must Survive on Only $14,500 a Month

by Brandon Sample

Crime pays well in Oregon. Just ask Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) Director Max Williams, who earned a whopping $174,000 last year – $14,500 a month – which was $80,400 more than his boss, Governor Ted Kulongoski.

Kulongoski gave the state’s top administrators very generous raises in 2007. Most realized a 22 percent pay increase, while Williams saw his salary jump 30%, moving him from among the top 20 highest-paid prison directors to third in the nation, behind only California and Texas according to a national survey.

To put the increase in perspective, California incarcerates nearly 12 times as many prisoners (170,000) as Oregon (14,300), but California’s Secretary of Corrections earns just 1.3 times more ($225,000) than Williams. Arizona confines nearly three times as many prisoners (38,000) as Oregon, but its prison director earns $30,000 less than Williams. Washington state also confines more prisoners (18,600) but pays its prison chief $27,000 less than Williams. Nationally, the average salary for top state corrections administrators falls between $100,000 and $125,000, according to Audrey Wall, who collected data for the national survey.

It is unclear what qualifies Williams for his hefty salary, particularly in these bleak economic times. Unlike most prison directors who have years of experience, having worked themselves up through the ranks of the prison system, Williams did not. In 2003, Gov. Kulongoski – a lawyer, former legislator and lifelong fixture in Oregon politics – convinced Williams, also a lawyer, to leave the state senate to serve as ODOC’s director, despite his never having worked in corrections in Oregon or anywhere else.

But then, merit does not seem to be the determining factor for Williams’ substantial pay raise, as evidenced by the fact that Kulongoski also gave across-the-board raises of 13 to 16 percent to rank-and-file state employees, including prison guards, at about the same time. Meanwhile, Oregon’s non-governmental workers saw an average salary increase of just four percent in 2006-2007, and few in the private sector receive pensions and health benefits comparable to those afforded to state employees.

Naturally, agency directors declined to comment on their salaries, but Kulongoski and state officials defended the pay increases, claiming that state government must keep pace with the private sector. “Nobody wants to pay department directors more than what is appropriate,” said Lonn Hoklin, spokesman for the Oregon Dept. of Administrative Services. “But you want to pay them and keep them in the job.”

As average Oregon workers struggle to put food on the table and gas in their vehicles, the front page of The Oregonian newspaper announced “Taxpayers’ Wall Street Bailout Tab: $700 Billion,” right next to another article reporting that Williams’ salary would jump another 3% to $180,000 – $15,000 a month – by June 2009.

State worker Catherine Stearns sees nothing wrong with the increase so long as there are similar raises for frontline workers. “If this methodology is good enough for the directors, we’re going to ask for that, too,” she said. “We’d be crazy not to.”

But both the amount and steep rate of increase of salaries for state employees are “appalling” to Oregon House Minority leader Bruce Hanna, who saw lawmakers harshly criticized just a week earlier for their own proposed pay hikes. “It slaps in the face of working Oregonians,” he said. “People will be out there asking, ‘What in the world are you thinking?’”

One of those people is 61-year-old Susan Antone. “I’m sorry they can’t live on $10,000 a month,” she said. “What do they think, this state is made out of money?”

Apparently Gov. Kulongoski was listening. Just three days after the story ran in The Oregonian he rescinded the most recent director pay increases, citing “recent economic events.” The governor’s spokeswoman, Anna Richter Taylor, said “the governor recognizes families are tightening their belts and state government needs to as well.” She estimated that repealing the director salary increases should save Oregon $25,000 a month. Even so, the Governor did not cancel a November 1, 2008 cost-of-living raise for state workers, who will still realize their 13 to 16 percent raises.

Lawmakers applauded the revocation of the director pay increases. “I would say that it’s clear evidence the governor’s beginning to realize how serious the downturn has become,” said Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli. So for now, Williams will have to find a way to live on his existing salary of a mere $14,500 per month.

Source: The Oregonian

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