CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you want to know what your city or county values most, you might look at which executives get paid the most with tax dollars. That's what the NewsChannel 36 I-Team has been doing -- looking at highly paid executives who don't work directly for local government, but get paid with tax dollars nonetheless. Critics insist their salaries say a lot about Charlotte Mecklenburg's priorities.
The highest paid public servants in Charlotte are not the police chief, not the school superintendent and not even the head of the CATS transit system. The men at the top of the pay scale earn more than the county manager and more than the city manager who supervise thousands of public employees.
All three men are chief executives. All three run similar overlapping agencies. All three earn at least $300,000 a year.
But unlike direct public employees like the city manager and county manger, their salaries are not debated by elected officials in well-attended public meetings. In fact you probably can't call their names.
Just who are they?
- Tim Newman is the CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. He earns $300,000 a year in salary and bonus, plus a car allowance and other benefits.
- Ronnie Bryant is the CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership. He will earn $318,000 this year in salary and benefits, but his board eliminated bonuses two years ago.
- Michael J. Smith is the CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. He will earn $347,000 this year in salary, including an $88,500 bonus, a $5,000 expense account and benefits.
All three men declined to speak publicly about their own salaries. But each man told the I-Team in separate interviews that his organization has a unique mission to boost Charlotte and bring new jobs.
Tim Newman promotes venues like the Time Warner Arena, the Charlotte Convention Center, the Bojangles' Coliseum, Ovens Auditorium and the new NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"We're now the 19th most visited city in the country," said Newman, a fact he says would surprise many natives.
Michael J. Smith focuses on the center city, the area inside the I-277 loop plus the historic South End. He defends three organizations, saying each serves a distinct mission.
"Charlotte has thrived with job growth," Smith said. "Job growth isn't accidental."
Ronnie Bryant markets and recruits big businesses to the region around Charlotte, a 16-county area about the size of Massachusetts.
"Those companies do not fall out of the sky," he said.
But the three agencies have long drawn the scrutiny of rock-ribbed conservatives, skeptical of their overlapping missions.
"They may have their own mission statements but they're doing the same thing," said Dan Bishop, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner and budget hawk.
Bishop says taxpayers' elected representatives should cut off these booster groups or at least consolidate them or bring them in house.
"We don't need all these executives -- highly paid -- to, in effect, do the same thing," said Bishop.
The three groups don't do the exact same thing, but they certainly overlap or share parallel missions.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority is based at the Charlotte Convention Center at the corner of College and Stonewall streets. It's funded by and large by facility fees charged to use the various publicly-operated venues it supervises and by hotel and motel taxes. Its job is to attract tourists and conventioneers to visit Charlotte and its five big public venues.
"We're dealing with heads in beds and fans in seats," said Newman.
The Charlotte Regional Partnership is based in the new NASCAR office tower beside the Hall of Fame. Over half its funding comes from contributing businesses. Just under half comes from tax dollars. Those tax dollars are based on a per person assessment contributed by the 16 counties and towns and cities in those counties -- not just Charlotte -- although Charlotte-Mecklenburg is the largest contributor at almost $300,000 this year, including contributions to the Film Commission. Its job: to market and recruit big employers to the region.
Charlotte Center City Partners is based on the top floor of 200 South Tryon. About a fourth of its funding comes from contributions from business partners and the remaining three-fourths from a special property tax levied on the uptown and South End areas. Its job is to promote, develop and market the center city, including everything inside I-277 plus the historic South End.
Center City Partners CEO Michael J. Smith says his group has periodically reviewed its efficiency and relationships with other groups and has decided that its mission justifies a separate agency.
"There's always an opportunity to save money," Smith said. "It's called spending less. It's also called investing less."
But former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dan Bishop has long criticized the taxpayer support for outside economic development groups.
"We don't need a tax funded body to do nothing other than dream up the next way to ask for more money to boost center city," Bishop said. "We've boosted the hell out of center city. It can stand on its own with the boosting it's been given."
What fuels Bishop's frustration is a flurry of taxpayer-financed buildings in uptown over the last decade -- from the ImaginOn library and museum partnership to the arena used to bring the NBA back to town, to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and three new museums and cultural centers on a South Tryon "cultural campus:" the Gantt, the Mint and the Bechtler.
"Each new shiny thing worried me," said Bishop, noting that each building put taxpayers, in some way, on the hook.
But Charlotte's professional boosters counter that uptown development benefits the neighborhoods and the whole region.
"We need it," said Ronnie Bryant of the Charlotte Regional Partnership. "Every asset we bring online positions us as a player."
And uptown has its eyes fixed on new shiny projects -- a "public market" in the former Reid's Fine Foods along the Lynx Line light rail, a streetcar to run on tracks already laid near Central Piedmont Community College, even a baseball stadium that, while stalled, is still a dream.
The shiny projects stand in stark contrast to the plans of CMS to close schools to consolidate and save money.
"We're in a tough spot with our county funding," said Center City Partners' Smith. "We need to be thoughtful in how we address that and I get that."
But the slogan of this political season is smaller government. So it should come as no surprise that rock-ribbed conservatives say the city and county could save some money by targeting these three outside agencies -- each with CEOs earning as much or more than the superintendent of schools.