By Jim Kuhnhenn
WASINGTON — The Obama administration is clamping down on excessive pay at public housing authorities, setting caps that extend and expand limits imposed by Congress. The action comes as the administration revealed that the top official at the Atlanta housing agency received a compensation package of $644,214, the highest in the country.
After conducting a national compensation survey, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to set a maximum salary ceiling of $155,000 for public housing agency officials, said two senior administration officials. The cap applies to the portion of executive salary paid with federal money. It does not require congressional action.
The national survey of 2010 salaries found that while most local public housing officials were compensated in amounts at or under the new limit, a few top local housing officials were getting at least twice that amount, including Atlanta Housing Authority executive director Renee Glover, who has led the city’s agency since 1994.
Her total compensation in 2010 included salary, bonus and other benefits, the officials said.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a plan and a report that had not been made public.
Sonji Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, said early Tuesday that the city of Atlanta would work with federal officials to address concerns about compensation, adding that the cap on salaries “made sense.” Early in his administration Reed recognized the need for stronger governance at the Atlanta Housing Authority and appointed new board members for better fiscal stewardship, Jacobs said.
According to a statement attributed to Glover, the compensation cited by the administration was a one-year package that included a $312,500 salary, a $126,000 payment for 12 years of accrued and unused vacation, $135,000 in two years of performance bonuses, and payments for unused sick leave and a year of unused vacation and paid holidays in 2010.
She said that for the 2011 calendar year, she received her $325,000 salary with no bonus or accrued vacation pay.
She said she explained the terms of her package to HUD officials.
“I value my integrity and my reputation above all and I am confident my professional record speaks for itself,” she said. “Over the course of my tenure with AHA, my compensation package has been approved in public meetings by independent Boards of Commissioners who were appointed by three of the last four Atlanta mayors,” she said.
Among others receiving large pay packages were top executives at housing agencies in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chelsea, Mass. All the executives at those agencies have left their jobs.
Those salary packages caused a furor last year, prompting calls for an investigation by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Beyond Glover’s compensation package, the Obama administration pointed to $606,320 in total compensation for the top official at the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, $417,688 at the Philadelphia Housing Authority and $357,635 at the Chelsea, Mass., Housing Authority.
Local news media reports of those payments last year prompted Congress to set a $155,000 salary cap on housing agencies for the 2012 fiscal year. The administration’s plan aligns those limits to the federal government pay scale, makes them permanent and applies them to bonuses and other means of compensation as well.
Agencies still can supplement a top officials pay with state or local government money.
The administration released median compensation packages by region, but aside from the top paying housing agencies, did not list specific compensation by individual housing authority.
Grassley welcomed the HUD action, but said the administration should identify compensation packages by agency.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to sustain gold-plated compensation packages for public employees,” he said. “My review has shown that the housing authorities that go off the rails count on a lack of transparency to do what they want.”
The senior administration officials said the Los Angeles housing agency had lowered its top compensation to $260,000 and the Philadelphia agency had set its top compensation at $225,000. Chelsea, Mass., a suburb of Boston with a population of about 35,000, had lowered its top compensation to $135,000.
While the top limit planned by the Obama administration would be $155,000 for agencies managing more than 1,250 public housing units, HUD would set lower limits for smaller public housing agencies. Housing authorities with between 250 and 1,250 units could pay a maximum of $125,926, and agencies handling fewer than 250 units could pay no more than $88,349.