While overseeing an annual budget of $13 billion and employments rolls in the tens of thousands, the MTA CEO and Chairman earns $350,000 a year and a housing bonus, but by many accounts — particularly that of the TWU — that compensation is far more than he deserves. Even though a mid-six-figure salary sounds good, there’s an argument to ebe made that New York State is under-compensating the MTA head, and that’s just what Josh Barro put forth on Bloomberg News yesterday.
As Barro argues, we as a society should be willing to pay top government officials far more than we do, in part in order to entice them to stick around and in part in order to entice them to do a good job. As he notes, in the private realm, someone tasked with leading a $13 billion organization would be compensated much better than the MTA head is, and as we saw with Jay Walder, when the right opportunity — notably at triple the salary — comes around, jumping ship is on the table. As Barro argues of recent MTA departures:
Unlike presidents and governors, it’s hard to say that MTA executives are compensated in prestige: As Lhota’s poll numbers make clear, the public generally doesn’t know who runs the MTA, and if they do, they’re predisposed to think he’s doing a bad job. So Walder left for a job that … pays more and Lhota to seek one that would bring greater non-monetary benefits…
Voters expect a lot from top public officials. We want them to be talented managers who run the government well. We want them to stay in their jobs long enough to see projects to completion. We want them not to be corrupt. And we want them to work for a lot less than they could make elsewhere. Dropping the last goal would make it easier to achieve the first three, which is a reason to give Prendergast a big raise.
Over the last few years, we’ve tried to figure out how to get transit executives to stay in place for longer than a year or two. Absent employment restrictions in contracts — which aren’t legally permissible — a higher salary may be the only way to go. It’s a tough argument for the public to swallow, but how else can we retain top talent anyway?