WJTV News Channel 12 - Highest Paid Public Officials in the Tri-Cities

Highest Paid Public Officials in the Tri-Cities

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When times are tough, every penny counts. But do you know where every penny, every tax dollar is going? As some struggle to make ends meet, what about those at the top? We're talking about the highest paid public officials, who say its important to have the right people in the right places. But at what cost?

News Channel 11's Kylie McGivern reveals what she uncovered about the highest paid public officials in the Tri-Cities, and lets you be the judge.It's important to note school officials were NOT factored into this story; They actually have a separate payroll, which News Channel 11 did not request at the time of this story. Kylie will be requesting, looking into those salaries in the coming weeks.

"The situations we respond to are generally not rainbows and flowers," Kingsport firefighter Shawn Bossert said.

Bossert doubles as a newly appointed treasurer for the local union chapter - Kingsport Firefighters Association. He understands the difficulties of balancing a budget.

"It's amazing how many bills are due at the end of the month," Bossert said.

Born and raised in the southside of Chicago, Bossert served 20 years in the Marines before retiring to the Tri-Cities. But it's what has enabled him to stay, he's most grateful for.

"Had it not been for my retirement check, coming out of the Marine Corps, and the money I make, added to the money my wife makes in her job, we wouldn't have been able to choose to live in this neighborhood," Bossert said.

Still, he considers himself lucky, with many firefighters struggling to make ends meet.

"Most firefighters have to work a second job. you know, whether it be lawn moving, construction, roofing..."

When times are tough, where are your tax dollars going? And how are other public employees, being paid?

News Channel 11's Kylie McGivern requested salary lists from six local city and counties: Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Tennessee, Bristol, Virginia, Washington County, Tennessee, and Sullivan County.

From there, she broke down the numbers, comparing and contrasting different public positions. Rather than looking immediately to those at the bottom, she focused on those at the top, and asked the question: What is the cost, of those who impact how your tax dollars are spent? Public employees making more than $100 thousand a year, namely, city managers and mayors.

"Some of the activities that I'm typically involved in would be to go out and try to recruit new business and new industry - whether it's a new expansion at the mall, or retail shop, or whether it's a manufacturing firm. We stay very busy in communication with the local legislators and with our federal legislators in Washington D.C.," Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson said.

Peterson is one of the highest paid public employees in the Tri-Cities. Appointed city manager in 2005, he has held a management role in the city for nearly 20 years. Making $134 thousand a year, Peterson compares his role to a CEO, and Johnson City, a business.

"You have to keep this in perspective. We run about a $250 million dollar a year business here," Peterson said.

It's a business which Peterson says the stakes are high -

"We're responsible to the taxpayers that they get a good return on their investment - their investment being tax dollars rather than a stock purchase."

The demands are real -

"If people can get up in the morning, and the water comes on, and the trash is taken off, and the school bus gets their child to school safely, and they don't hit a pothole on the way to work, it's usually a really good day. you know, the local government has met their core needs for that day."

And the employees make the difference.

"It's very critical that we have the right people, in the right places," Peterson said.

A similar balancing act has left Sullivan County tipping the scale, finding itself at the center of a lawsuit this year with the sheriff demanding higher pay for his employees. And now, a proposed 2 percent increase for all non-elected county employees. Elected employee salaries are set by the state of Tennessee.

"we need to have a plan to take care of the county employees, and right now there's not one. Any I think an easy way to do it is to tie it - or model what the state does, with their employees - by rewarding longevity, as well as cost of living raises," Sullivan County Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Kerns says.

"Currently, if we bring in a new hire into a position, they could very well be at the same pay level, or close by, as someone who has been doing that job for 6, 8, 10 years. And I think that, that lends itself to some frustration. And folks feel like they're tenure doesn't mean a lot. So I don't like that, I think there's a lot of reason for us to go back and see about re-instituting some type of a longevity plan and/or a pay plan that folks would be able to look at and see where they could possibly within the next two years, three years down the road," Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey said.

When asked about means the means to fund a pay increase, Kerns says it's simple.

"You take a 2 percent raise, of someone who makes $24,000 a year, that's $480 a year. It's not like you're... Robbing a bank," Kerns said.

But multiplied by roughly 700 employees, a 2 percent pay raise is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $650,000.

"There are a lot of people, that work for Sullivan county, and for some governments, who could get federal assistance. And local assistance. But they're too proud to do it. And that's a bad indictment on us," Kerns said.

In News Channel 11's search for the highest paid public official, the search brought us to Kingsport - City Manager John Campbell, who makes $170,00 a year. Johnson City's city manager makes $134,000, while Bristol, Tennessee's city manager also makes $134,000, and Bristol, Virginia's - $120,000 per year.

Campbell is a former city manager for Johnson City, who later took a job in Kingsport in 2006.

"Typically we try and stay in a position where we're very competitive, but we're not always at the top," Campbell said.

Kylie: "Jumping off of that, I just want to know what your reaction is to the fact that you and the Governor of Tennessee are paid the same amount yearly."

Campbell: "oh, haha, I didn't know I was paid the same as the Governor of Tennessee, but all of our positions are set up pretty much based on the market, you know, what the market bears. And in our case, I haven't bothered quite frankly to look at a city manager comparison study for - since I took this job basically."

So News Channel 11 did, investigating public figure salaries in cities close to Johnson city and Kingsport in population - Jackson, and Hendersonville, Tennessee. In both cities, the mayors essentially wear two hats. Though elected, each also acts at the city manager and chief decision maker. In Hendersonville, the job is worth $86, 436 a year. In Jackson, $101, 200. That is just based on a comparison of city populations, not budget amounts.

"You gotta be practical about it (salaries). I mean if you don't, the taxpayers really scream pretty quickly. And they're always watching that sort of thing," Campbell said.

Watching when times are tough, as we hold the powerful, accountable.

Governor Bill Haslam made $170 thousand in 2010 when he was elected, and has since gotten an $8 thousand raise.

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