At this week's port authority meeting, Manatee County Commissioner and Port Authority Board Chair Carol Whitmore sounded the alarm that Port Manatee Director Carlos Buqueras might be hired away, were his already handsome compensation package not soon enhanced.
Politicians seem to do few things better than trying to convince the public that high-level bureaucrats are so valuable and irreplaceable that it's not a question of if we can afford to pay more for them, but rather how quickly the sky will begin falling if we don't.
Over the years, we've seen the price tag for government administrators swell into the stratosphere, even as lower-level compensation and benefits stagnate, and in some cases decline. Each time, we're told that the highly paid bureaucrat is in fact grossly underpaid (compared to some of his peers at least) and has few reasons to keep slumming it for the supposed pittance he or she is pulling in. Almost without fail, we're prescribed a preemptive solution – pay them more now.
This game of monetary musical chairs allows each market to help boost the pay of administrators in those around it, all under the argument that their guy will be swimming in better offers like that one, if they don't hurry up and weigh him down with bricks of gold. It also pushes up the supposed fair market value of every other local administrator who comes up for renegotiation afterward like school district superintendents, county administrators and government attorneys, because their raises are suddenly in line with similar positions. By placing the emphasis on securing their futures before they can be lost, the actual free market for talent is rarely tested.
In early 2013, we heard the same thing about Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker. Despite a compensation package worth around $200,000 and the fact that renegotiating his contract brought with it vastly complex, not to mention highly expensive factors regarding his enrollment in the state's DROP program, the same commissioners voted 5-2 (Gallen and DiSabatino dissenting) to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars “making him whole” and “bringing his compensation in line with his peers,” before a single resume of potential replacements was ever collected, let alone considered.
Indeed, Buqueras's contract was invoked in justifying Hunzeker's, and it might also be noted that the same commissioner – Larry Bustle – was the point man for both contracts. In fact, Buqueras's original contract fell under a cloud of controversy when Bustle lavished perks upon him that Buqueras apparently hadn't even asked for, while failing to tell commissioners that he'd even indicated they weren't necessary. One might get the impression that the whole point of fattening the port director's haul was for Bustle to set the table for his close ally Hunzeker's renegotiation.
After getting a new 5-year deal, Hunzeker went on to push the county toward the disastrous (and equally expensive) indigent health care sales tax referendum and the Long Bar Pointe debacle, while the Animal Services scandal also caught fire. It's hard to imagine we couldn't have found someone to do at least as well for a few bucks less, let alone that taxpayers have received the value of the extra $300,000 or so that keeping Hunzeker around a little longer will ultimately cost – in addition to the salary we were paying him.
To be fair, Buqueras himself has not gone on record as asking for more this time either. That's probably a good thing, because it would be a tough case to make at this stage of the game. Despite supposedly coming from Port Everglades armed with a wealth of industry contacts and then jet-setting all over the world promoting our port since, the fact of the matter remains that he simply hasn't managed to bring in that much new business.
The port's biggest rail client, Kinder Morgan, also pulled its Mosaic business under his watch, leading to furloughs in January that are just now ending. The port has not yet nailed down Del Monte's lease extension, which is almost three years into the last five-year period of a 20-year master lease. Losing the food giant's business would be disastrous to the port's bottom line (the port wouldn't comment on the state of ongoing negotiations with a tenant). The port's current financials are not exactly stellar and some of the good news that does exist is owed to the county's refinancing of port debt and parcels of business that resulted from economic incentives to businesses that came to the county and would then naturally use its port and/or rail.
Buqueras's base pay is about $189,000, having already received a $14,000 raise six months into his current three-year contract. He also gets an allowance for his car (even though he takes a port vehicle when he travels on port business) and 5 percent deferred compensation that is always somehow never mentioned when we talk about the salaries of high-level administrators. These, along with a myriad of other perks and security blankets, pushes his compensation package well over the $200,000 mark.
The port director's contract is up in January. When he was hired, the posted opening drew no less than 80 candidates, while advertised at $150-$180,000 per year. It didn't matter, that as Commissioner Whitmore pointed out Thursday, the Port of Tampa Director (a vastly different port, helmed by a director with a genuinely unique resume) earned notably more. The time to discuss Mr. Buqueras's contract would seem to be when it comes up, and if he can do better than Port Manatee, I say more power to him. However, that alone is not reason to back up the Brinks truck anytime soon.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.