Survey: Median Pay for Top Local Officials is $103K

A new survey tallies pay and benefits for chief appointed officials across the country, finding compensation varies greatly by locality.
by | May 2, 2013 AT 12:15 PM

Top appointed local government officials take home a median annual base salary of about $103,000, but their pay varies widely across jurisdictions.

That’s according to a recently published survey of city managers, county administrators and other chief appointed officials in nearly 3,000 localities, conducted last year by the International City/County Management Association.

As to be expected, base pay differs greatly -- from $25,264 up to $368,282. But in general, ICMA didn’t find any significant deviations from norms, given the various responsibilities of each position.

“Chief appointed officials are being reasonably compensated,” said Evelina Moulder, ICMA’s director of survey research. “We don’t see any extremely high salaries or unusual benefits.”

The survey found a slight uptick in overall median base pay from 2011, up about $2,000. Comparisons for prior years were not available, but only 10 percent reported incurring cuts to their base pay since 2007, many of whom served cash-strapped localities along the West Coast.

One of the primary drivers of pay is an area’s population – it’s no surprise public officials overseeing the nation’s largest cities and counties typically earn the highest paychecks. The following data, published in ICMA's Yearbook, lists median salaries by population:

  • Over 1,000,000: $235,099
  • 500,000–1,000,000: $190,409
  • 250,000–499,999: $181,865
  • 100,000–249,999: $162,651
  • 50,000–99,999: $148,365
  • 25,000–49,999: $130,000
  • 10,000–24,999: $115,000
  • 5,000–9,999: $92,000
  • 2,500–4,999: $76,000
  • Under 2,500: $63,000

It’s important to note the vast majority of administrators aren’t serving big cities. Chief appointed officials in jurisdictions with fewer than 25,000 residents accounted for 71 percent of survey respondents.

A number of other factors weigh heavily as well. Moulder pointed out the scope of services local governments provide and their top administrators are responsible for varies. Those working in council-manager systems also tend to earn more, for example, since those officials hold greater authority.

Like any job, a region’s labor market and cost of living further influence pay.

California is home to the nation’s top paid officials, a finding that ICMA reports has been the case for decades.

Severance benefits are another important component of local officials’ contracts, since the positions often experience high turnover. The survey found 78 percent were eligible for severance pay.

However, overall benefit packages typically don’t differ much from their subordinates: 85 percent of chief appointed officials’ benefits were calculated in the same manner as other employees.

Public interest in officials’ salaries escalated in 2010, when news reports showed officials in Bell, Calif., took home huge paychecks in the low-income Los Angeles suburb. Robert Rizzo, the now-former city manager, had bumped up his salary to nearly $800,000. Eight city officials were later charged with misappropriating public funds.

While the scandal didn’t have a noticeable effect on pay for top administrators elsewhere, Moulder said it did result in more scrutiny.

Some localities introduced transparency initiatives. The ICMA survey found that base salaries of chief appointed officials were posted online in 55 percent of local governments serving at least 50,000 residents.

Similarly, a Governing review of state government websites last year found half maintained searchable online compensation databases. Many public officials residing in these states weren’t happy about their compensation being posted online, though. About 41 percent of respondents in a Governing survey of senior state and local officials said citizens should not be able to find their specific compensation with names listed online.

Additional survey results can be found in ICMA’s Municipal Year Book.