Knik Arm bridge board gives executives pay raises

"I know it looks kind of screwy, but you’ve got to look at the other factors involved,"
In an executive session in June at the Anchorage offices of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, board members approved pay raises of nearly $40,000 each for three top executives.

Board chairman George Wuerch said, and the minutes of that meeting note, that the information discussed at the executive session should remain confidential. There is no mention in the minutes of the June 7 meeting of salary increases.

The action came in the wake of an Alaska Legislature allocation in excess of $93 million in federal funds and $24 million in state money for the bridge project.

The salary increases for executive director Henry Springer, deputy executive director of corporate affairs Darryl Jordan and chief financial officer Kevin Hemenway were made public via the Alaska Budget Report, an independent Juneau newsletter that delves into state government issues. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, read the report and produced a news release noting that Springer’s salary increased from $104,496 to $130,000, Jordan’s from $90,324 to $130,000, and Hemenway’s from $90,324 to $129,000.

According to an Associated Press report, Jordan said the raises were justified because the project was now a reality, and the board wanted to bring its executives’ salaries in line with other organizations doing similar work. He could not say which other organizations were used for salary comparisons.

"I know it looks kind of screwy, but you’ve got to look at the other factors involved," Jordan said, according to the AP.

Springer was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Hemenway, who joined the KABATA staff June 26, said in fact it was agreed before he took the job that he would get the higher salary.

"It was changing the grade of a position that existed that had not been filled, to accommodate bringing me on board," Hemenway said. Prior to becoming chief financial officer, Hemenway won a competitive bid to provide advisory services for KABATA.

Hemenway said he had taken the job "because I’m a big believer in this project. The reason I’m doing this is not for the money," he said. "I think this is a great project for the community."

His duties, said Hemenway, include raising about 75 percent of the estimated $500 million to $600 million the project is currently estimated to cost.

According to Hemenway, the perspective "was to bring the authority’s pay scale online with comparable organizations in the state," like Alaska Housing Finance Corp., Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, and the Alaska Railroad Corp.

Tom Boutin, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue, who voted for the salary increases, said at first he didn’t even recall the vote.

"It was one quarter, three months ago," he said. Did he agree with it? "You betcha," said Boutin, the revenue agency’s designated appointee to the KABATA board.

"The salaries are warranted and appropriate. I think they are certainly in the bottom half or bottom third of comparable independent state agency salaries," Boutin said.

"If there was a vote, I’m sure the vote was not in an executive session," Boutin said. "I’m sure the decision was not made in executive session."

Rep. Bill Stolze, R-Wasilla, and Sen. Lyda Green, non-voting members of the board, were in Juneau at the time attending a special session of the Legislature. Stolze said while he was not aware of the salary increases, "they are probably consistent with what is paid in the industry for short-term (employment)."

At any rate, the changes in salaries should have been made public, Stolze said. "Personally, I like more public disclosure. Salaries should all be public. Absolutely. It’s a public entity. There is no ambiguity with me on that.

"As far as salary compensation, I know the folks there are doing a good job," he said.

The bridge over Knik Arm, to provide another transportation link between Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley, has been the subject of controversy since the 1940s. Most recently, the Knik Arm Crossing and the proposed Gravina Island bridge in Southeast Alaska have been strongly criticized by congressional critics and others as "bridges to nowhere."

In the Anchorage area, the major stream of protest against the Knik Arm bridge has come from residents of Government Hill, whose neighborhood is in the direct path of the proposed bridge access.

"KABATA officials have repeatedly ignored community requests that the authority help design a bridge access route that does not destroy homes in the Government Hill neighborhood, Anchorage’s oldest," said Stephanie Kesler, president of the Government Hill Community Council.

Kesler called the raises "mind boggling" in light of the authority’s refusal to respect legitimate community concerns. Rep. Gara, whose district includes Government Hill, said "public employees with $100,000 jobs don’t need $35,000 raises. Something is wrong with this picture."

Gara noted that the battle between KABATA and Government Hill residents has been going on since 2004. "While residents have asked the bridge authority to help develop an access route from Anchorage to the eventual bridge through Elmendorf Air Force Base that wouldn’t damage neighborhood homes, KABATA has refused to follow through in any substantial way," he said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at [email protected].

10/07/2006 - 8:00pm