Airport chief's pay is a surprise

Board unaware of extra money

Staff WriterDecember 31, 2010 

When recently retired Pitt-Greenville Airport manager James Turcotte landed on the list of the state's top 10 state and local government pensioners, it surprised some members of the small regional airport's board.

They could not understand how someone who earned an annual salary of no more than $180,000 in his 35-year career could now be pulling down a $173,654 annual pension. They say they were unaware that he was receiving other compensation that boosted his pay by as much as $77,000.

The biggest was an annual "merit pay" component that grew rapidly over Turcotte's final five years. In 2004, he received nearly $15,000 in merit pay. By 2008, the merit pay had nearly quadrupled to more than $55,000. That and other components pushed Turcotte's total compensation to nearly $258,000 in his final full year on the job in 2008.

"I didn't know I was voting for all that," said Jimmy Garris, a Pitt County commissioner who served on the airport board for four years. The county and city co-own the airport.

That level of compensation is roughly $45,000 more than what the directors of the state's two largest airports in Charlotte and Raleigh are making. Jerry Orr of the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport makes $211,000 a year, while Raleigh-Durham International Airport Director John Brantley makes $215,000.

Both airports are far larger than Greenville's, an airport with 15 full-time staff members that operates on a roughly $2.5 million budget. RDU, for example, has a full-time staff of roughly 270 and an $86 million budget.

Pay becomes issue

Today, Turcotte's salary and pension are a bone of contention among board members and other local officials. The board chairman, Alton Holloman, said it is justified.

"We have done extremely well under the leadership of Turcotte," Holloman said.

He said Turcotte turned the airport into a self-supporting entity that has kept commercial airline service, while other small city airports have lost theirs. Hollomon said that no city or county revenues or federal grant money went toward Turcotte's compensation. All of it came from fees generated by the airport, Hollomon said.

Others, such as Garris, say Turcotte was paid too much and in ways that the board should have known about.

A statement released by the authority credited Turcotte, who started work there in 1974, with numerous accomplishments, including:

Rehabilitating and improving a dilapidated World War II airfield that had not received any state or federal money since 1946.

Overseeing the enlargement of the airport from 600 acres to nearly 1,000 acres. Nearly $65 million worth of capital improvement projects transformed the facility into a modern commercial airport.

Increasing the footprint of airport buildings from 1,400 square feet to more than 107,000 square feet.

Turcotte, who retired in August 2009, could not be reached for comment.

"Certainly I don't think for a small airport a person can be making that," said Eugene James, an airport board member and Pitt County commissioner. "More than that, how could he retire with that amount?"

He was in top 10

Turcotte's pension became public in June when The News & Observer reported the top 10 pension recipients in state and local government as part of a series of reports about the state's personnel law. The report noted that because of the state's personnel law, which was then among the most secretive in the nation, state officials could not identify what jobs the pensioners had held or how their pensions were calculated.

At that time, Turcotte's successor, Jerry Vickers, declined to say what Turcotte's most recent annual compensation was because it wasn't current. The law only required the release of current compensation.

Shortly afterward, state lawmakers changed the personnel law to make salary and employment histories public. Some state and local agencies balked at releasing such information, contending that the changes applied only to the law's start date of Oct. 1. But state Attorney General Roy Cooper later released an advisory opinion saying the law's intent is to make all the information public regardless of the start date.

Some pay not reported

Terry Boardman, a certified public accountant and instructor at East Carolina University, used the law to press the board to release Turcotte's salary history. The board waited for Cooper's opinion before releasing the compensation information last month. Boardman later received minutes of the board's closed sessions, which showed that roughly 10 years ago, the board changed the way it reported Turcotte's compensation. The merit pay he received would not be reported along with his salary.

"What I think happened is the board lost control of the airport man ager and did not know what he was doing in relation to his pay increases," Boardman said.

Turcotte is the third person among the top 10 pensioners to become embroiled in controversy over his pay and pension. All three worked for local or regional agencies that are now later under fire for lacking oversight.

A complex formula

State and local pensions, managed by the state Treasurer's Office, are calculated from a formula that includes the employee's years of service plus his or her highest consecutive four years of earnings. Employees typically contribute 6 percent of their pay, while local governments pay a slightly lower percentage. The state has responsibility for keeping the pension funds solvent, and state Treasurer Janet Cowell has required local governments to step up their contributions so the fund can meet its obligations.

Boardman said someone independent of the airport authority needs to take a look at the history of Turcotte's compensation. This month, the board voted in closed session on an outside review, but it failed by one vote , Holloman said. He called the vote an endorsement of the board's internal investigation, which found that neither Turcotte nor the board had done anything illegal.

But the fuss about Turcotte's salary has affected future operations. Vickers, who made $83,000 as the director of Jacksonville's airport, and now makes $143,624, will not get the merit pay component that Turcotte received.

"It's a bit of a complex way of doing business," Vickers said.

dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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