PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — It used to be that a career in local government was commendable, but no one was going to get rich working those types of jobs. Apparently times have changed.
Salaries for government leadership jobs in The Panhandle have trended upward according to numbers obtained by News 13.
Earlier this month the Panama City Beach City Council hired Anthony O’Rourke as City Manager, offering him a base salary of $170,000 a year. That is about $25,000 more than the current City Manager, Mario Gisbert was making as he transitions into retirement. The city hired Gisbert in 2012 for $120,000.
O’Rourke isn’t the only local leader who is benefitting from a rise in compensation.
News 13 used public records laws to collect salary figures for city managers, county managers and other administrative positions across the region. We also attempted to find a way to place those numbers in context. That proved difficult. Florida’s League of Cities declined an interview request. Meanwhile, it seems the organizations that normally keep a sharp eye on how taxpayer dollars are spent are not interested in this aspect of the spending.
What we were able to find was a survey done in 2015 by the Florida Association of Counties.
Bay County’s County Manager made $145,000 that year. Walton County’s County Manager made $135,660. This year Bay County County Manager Bob Majka will make $170,000, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones will make $171,058. Meanwhile, in Jackson County, the county administrator position has shown almost no increase. The job paid $85,739 in 2015 and County Administrator Wilanne Daniels currently makes $87,450.
Six-figure salaries are now the norm for anyone tasked with running a city or a county in The Panhandle. Lynn Haven’s City Manager, Vickie Gainer, makes $115,003. That’s nearly the same as the James Dean, the city manager for the city of Marianna, who makes $113,405. Callaway’s City Manager, Eddie Cook, pulls in $130,000 and Mark McQueen, City Manager for Panama City, makes $151,905.
But the six-figure club doesn’t end with the top leadership role. Most of the leadership team in Panama City Beach is also making more than $100,000 each year. The lowest-paid member of that team is the city’s Parks and Recreation Director who makes $98,134.
“If he’s not doing a good job he’s quickly let go. It can be a tenuous position for some.”Cragin Mosteller, the director of external affairs for The Florida Association of Counties
That’s also true for the leadership positions in Walton and Bay counties. In Panama City, most of the individuals who didn’t cross the six-figure threshold were making in the annual salaries of more than $90,000.
Experts on the issue say these salaries are in line with what a chief executive officer at a private company would make and depend on the size of the city or county.
Also, most of these leaders have decades of experience in government work.
“Most of the county administrators have moved up and worked in local government for several years,” said Cragin Mosteller, the director of external affairs for The Florida Association of Counties.
She added that they have to serve the public interest while also dealing with numerous politically hot topics.
“It’s kind of like the coach of your favorite football team,” Mosteller said. “If he’s not doing a good job he’s quickly let go. It can be a tenuous position for some.”
And the responsibility level is nearly off the charts. A city or county administrators could be called on to solve every problem from a pothole or a broken water pipe to rebuilding a city after a Category 5 Hurricane.
“They are a link between the county commissioners and county employees and citizens as a whole,” Mosteller said. “It’s really important to keep in mind the grand scope of what they are doing.”
Carol Roberts, the President, and CEO of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce had a firsthand view of how hard the job can be during the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
“I watched them at the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) sleeping on cots, sleeping on floor, sleeping on air mattresses when they did get to sleep,” she recalled. “They were constantly on duty and on duty when their own homes and families had been devastated by Hurricane Michael.”
While the job is usually not that demanding it is something more than a nine to five paycheck.
“Even during normal times their lives are not normal,” Roberts said. “They’re on call all the time.”
One of the biggest difficulties is finding the right person for the job. The Mexico Beach City Council conducted a search last year and Mayor Al Cathey has frequently remarked that all but two or three of them could have filled the role. The city hired Andy Anderson but he suddenly died.
In his last few weeks before retiring from Panama City Beach, Gisbert agreed to work in a part-time capacity as the City Administrator for Mexico Beach. This week, the city council announced they wanted to make Gisbert full-time and hired him for $90,000 a year.
Gisbert will now spend his days helping to rebuild a city that was demolished by Hurricane Michael. Gisbert, who has a background in architecture, sounded excited when he talked about the years of work that now stands before him. That includes new ‘storm-hardened’ city buildings like a new city hall, public safety buildings, parks, and sewer work and helping homeowners rebuild.
“Every home that opens a door and goes back to normal is an accomplishment,” Gisbert said.
In the coming weeks, News 13 will examine the salaries of other local civil servants and elected officials. Stay tuned to mypanhandle.com.