The Highest Paid Local Government Employee in New Mexico Is….
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The award goes to Subhas Shah, Chief Engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. He rakes in $186,662.58. Add to that a double-dip fake retirement of more than $108,000 and this employee at an obscure government agency receives nearly $300,000 a year from taxpayers.
The MRGCD manages irrigation and flood control in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. Its 210 person payroll is a tiny fraction of the City of Albuquerque’s huge workforce. But Shah’s base salary is $40,000 more than that of Albuquerque’s City Manager.
Shah surpasses the highest local government salary New Mexico Watchdog has found thus far in its survey of municipal and county payrolls. The Las Cruces City Manager, Robert Garza, had previously held top spot, drawing $163,000 a year.
Shah’s total compensation is more than twice the $110,000 salary for the Governor of New Mexico.
Public employees have seen virtually no increases in pay since the recession hit in 2008. In State government, the lavish salaries for political appointees in the administration of former Governor Richardson have been scaled back under current Governor Susana Martinez. Our survey has found that city and county manager salaries have dropped almost across the board.
But Shah’s salary jumped $35,000 from the $151,000 he was getting in 2009.
Shah has been employed by MRGCD for 33 years. His eye-popping compensation was exposed by Larry Barker of KRQE-TV in a special 2009 investigative report. Barker revealed how Shah’s “retirement” was a sham, allowing him to draw retirement pay while also working at a full salary as Chief Engineer. Barker also revealed how the MRGCD Board of Directors in 2004 gave Shah a $73,000 “severance” payment, even though he never left his job.
Shah also paid himself nearly $250,000 in accumulated leave, even though that violated MRGCD policy, according to Barker’s report.
You can see Barker’s report here. Shah’s supporters on the Board in 2009 compared Barker’s reporting to “a lynching.” In response to public outrage generated by Barker’s broadcast, the MRGCD Board met in special session behind closed doors in March 2009 to review Shah’s contract.
An Albuquerque Journal report said that Shah’s pay going into the special session was $160,000, a sum $9,000 higher than Barker reported just a few days before.
The Board took no action and Shah thanked them for their support. Shah pretty much dropped out of the headlines. Three and a half years later his base salary has grown to $186,662.58.
Over those years his retirement income seems to have also risen. Barker reported in March 2009 that Shah’s fancy footwork allowed him to draw $95,000 annually as retirement pay even though he had not retired. The Albuquerque Journal in the story linked above reported that Shah was drawing retirement benefits in excess of $100,000. Research by David Collins, a former New Mexico Watchdog investigative reporter, found that Shah was drawing $9,071 a month in payments from the Public Employees Retirement Association. That comes to $108,852 a year.
The recession has been tough for most Americans. But definitely not for Mr. Shah.
An Inherited Contract
The previous MRGCD Board “rubber stamped without limit” pay increases for Shah, says Derrick Lente, the current chairman of the MRGCD Board of Directors. Since he and three other individuals were elected in 2009, Shah has received no pay increases from the Board, says Lente.
How did Shah jump to $186,000 from the $160,000 salary he had been receiving going into the March 2009 meeting to address public objections to his extraordinary compensation? Lente says the outgoing Board did that before they left office. “This is an inherited situation,” Lente said.
MRGCD Board member John Kelly also described Shah’s compensation as “something I inherited as a newly elected board member.” He joined the MRGCD Board in 2011. “I can’t tell you how he got to the point where he is,”
“If you look at the other employees” on the MRGCD payroll, Kelly said, “you’ll see they are receiving normal public employee salaries.”
This link compiled by Marcos Portillo, an intern with The Rio Grande Foundation, provides a full listing of MRGCD employees and their salaries. The next highest paid employee, administrative officer Jeanette Bustamante, makes nearly $100,000 less than Shah’s base salary.
Chairman Lente said that he has helped implement a performance review process. “Shah’s contract is currently under review,” Lente said. Shah is a classified employee, not an at-will employee, and is covered by civil service protections. He can be fired only if specific criteria are met.
In an “only in New Mexico” moment, we interviewed Mr. Lente by telephone while he was on horseback rounding up cattle on Sandia Pueblo lands. Besides being a cowboy who gives interviews from the saddle, Lente is also a lawyer, professor and water resources manager.
As we reported in our review of the top 250 salaries on the City of Albuquerque payroll, another “inherited situation” resulted in the City Manager being paid less than an employee under his supervision because of a deal made with the former mayor.
Related: Santa Fe’s payroll
Posted under News.
Tags: Albuquerque Journal, Derrick Lente, John Kelly, KRQE-TV, Larry Barker, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, MRGCD, public employee compensation, public employee salaries, Robert Garza, Subhas Shah