Mid-Hudson government jobs can pay well

| Times Herald-Record

Middletown’s public works commissioner and police chief, two Ulster County staff psychiatrists and Kiryas Joel’s village administrator each earned more than $200,000 and were the highest-paid local government employees in the region in the 12-month period that ended March 31.

Jacob Tawil, an engineer who has run the City of Middletown’s public works department for 12 years, was paid nearly $260,000, more than any other municipal or county worker in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, according to income data obtained and made public this month by the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany. The income amounts – reported annually to the state’s pension funds to calculate future retirement payouts – include any pay that employees get in addition to their salaries, such as overtime or compensation for unused vacation days.

The Empire Center has been compiling and publishing the incomes of public employees since 2008 in an effort to enlighten and engage New Yorkers. The think tank appears to have achieved its aim, boasting 2 million unique users of its “See Through NY” website and roughly 45 million data searches in the past 12 months. Unique users have roughly doubled since the site was launched.

“What it tells us is there’s an appetite for this information,” Tim Hoefer, the Empire Center’s executive director, said last week.

He called the database of public pay an important taxpayer resource, though perhaps just a starting point for citizens to learn more about the reasons for particular employees’ salaries.

“We’ve said this since the beginning: Taxpayers have a right to know where their tax dollars go,” Hoefer said, noting that payrolls generally are the largest share of government costs.

Past records on the Empire Center’s database show that the Middletown public works commmissioner’s pay was $141,308 in 2010 and has leaped several times, rising 30 percent since 2014. Tawil’s contract grants him five weeks of vacation per year and lets him save and get paid for all unused vacation days, which contributed significantly to his $260,000 pay in the past year.

Middletown Mayor Joseph DeStefano staunchly defends Tawil’s salary, saying his engineering background and creativity have saved the city money and generated new revenue, far more than what he is paid. He singled out Tawil’s idea to accept private haulers’ septic waste at the city’s sewage treatment plant, a service that now raises about $500,000 in annual income for Middletown. Tawil also oversaw major water and sewer projects that resolved past environmental violations and enabled the city to sell those services to outside users.

“He has been a tremendous generator of revenue for the city,” DeStefano said.

DeStefano also pointed out that in addition to being public works commissioner, Tawil is the water superintendent and sewer superintendent, filling three positions that might otherwise require three different employees.

Middletown’s former police chief, Ramon Bethencourt, earned $220,000 in the past year and had the third highest government pay in the region. DeStefano argued that for both Bethencourt and Tawil, their positions were important enough that the city must pay more to retain talented people.

Bethencourt, who retired at age 48 in July after 25 years with the Middletown Police Department, earned far more than any other law-enforcement figure in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan. The next highest-earning police chief in those counties was Woodbury’s Kevin Watson, who was promoted from sergeant in November and earned $162,486.

Including Bethencourt, 17 police commanders and officers in the three counties earned more than $150,000 with overtime and any additional pay. Most worked for Middletown, the City of Newburgh or the Town of New Windsor.

Those police pay totals, however high, paled in comparison to what their counterparts in Rockland County earn.

In a report that accompanied the release of its latest data this month, the Empire Center said police pay averaged $200,352 in the Town of Ramapo and $180,801 in the Town of Clarkstown in the same 12-month period that ended on March 31. Thomas Donnelly, a Ramapo cop who reportedly retired in August, collected $441,968, making him the highest-paid municipal employee in the state, outside New York City. Second and third in the rankings were two other Ramapo police officers, whose income totaled $369,412 and $364,671.

The fourth highest-earning local government employee in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties in the last state fiscal year was Kiryas Joel Administrator Gedalye Szegedin. His $216,000 pay was more than eight times as high as the $26,000 median household income of his Satmar Hasidic community.

Kiryas Joel, a village of 23,000 people, had 10 employees who earned more than $100,000, far more than any other municipality in the region. In addition to Szegedin, two others were paid more than $150,000: Aron Schreiber, who is Szegedin’s assistant and earned $152,637; and code enforcement officer Yitzchok Goldberger, who made $151,458.

Szegedin defended his and his co-workers’ high salaries in an email, saying “the most important point” was that Kiryas Joel hasn’t increased its tax rate in 11 years. He also argued that the staff earns higher pay by working 10 to 12 hours a day, including on Sundays, each doing as much as three to four workers in other municipalities. That productivity was the key to the village’s unchanging tax rate, Szegedin said.

Szegedin’s income grew by $10,000 to $11,000 in each of the past three years, according to the Empire Center’s pay records.

For a searchable database of public employee salaries in New York, go to seethroughny.net/payrolls