Looking for savings, counties spend more on tech staff

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Three years ago, Baltimore County technology director Robert Stradling's salary barely cracked the top 10 highest-paid county employees.

Now, thanks to a $40,000 pay raise over the last few years, he's the third-highest-paid employee, falling below only State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger and Police Chief Jim Johnson, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun.

Stradling's rising salary reflects the heightened role that technology directors and information systems managers play in counties and municipalities these days. In short, keeping tech-savvy employees isn't cheap.

With an eye on greater cost savings, county officials have turned to technology to enhance overall efficiency. As responsibilities have grown beyond simple desktop computer maintenance, so has compensation.

On Friday, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz plans to post salaries of 7,800 government employees online — a move he announced as The Sun prepared to release its own searchable database of county employee earnings, as it has done for state and Baltimore City workers. The database can be found here.

In 2002, the county paid its technology director about $109,000. Six years later, that figure was $50,000 higher. Last year, Stradling made almost $198,000.

"In the short term, it will cost, but the return on that investment should be phenomenal for the county," said Jacqueline Byers, director of research in the National Association of Counties' County Services Department.

Technology director is generally one of the most difficult jobs for a municipality to fill, along with county manager and economic development director, and Baltimore County's proximity to Annapolis and Washington doesn't make it any easier, Byers said.

"The competition for IT people is fierce, especially in this area. State government and federal government centers are all within reasonable commuting distance," she said.

"If you're going to try to move into that arena where you're trying to get into the most recent high-tech activities, you've got to have someone who knows how to do it and who knows how to stay abreast of what's going on in IT."

Many counties are taking cues from the private sector and even one another, looking to enhance operations through "cloud"-based computing, mobile applications and virtualization — where one physical computer houses multiple "virtual machines" — in addition to doing in-depth process analyses in each department.

A 25-year veteran professional, Stradling supervises 183 employees. He came to the county five years ago from the private sector, where he worked at Citibank, Andersen Consulting and AIG. Back then, he said, he was one of the "biggest naysayers" when it came to discussions about government spending.

"I took a bit of a pay cut coming in, but I was at a place in my life where I could look at the salary as secondary and give something back for a change," Stradling said.

He said he was eager to apply business principles — set goals and deliver — to local government.

"When you're trying to stretch and do more with less, you leverage your information technology as much as you can," Stradling said.

Technology is now an integral part of operations, he said. "The days of just doing desktop [maintenance] and making sure your devices work — that's 15 years ago. We have to be able to understand what they are doing, how we can help them and support them in meeting their customers' needs."

For instance, Stradling's department has helped to make county police cars a "virtual office" with access to email, online daily reports and training, and eventually allowing officers to file tickets without coming into headquarters. It's all part of making crime-fighting more data-driven, he said.

"Chief Johnson reminds my folks, 'You guys are crimefighters just as much as we are,' " Stradling said.

Neighboring counties are placing similar emphasis on their technology managers. Howard County recently approved increasing the salary range to $201,000. The current director, Ira Levy, makes about $164,360.

"A top-notch IT director is critical for any well-run company. And in order to hire and retain those directors you must pay fair market value," said Kevin Enright, spokesman for Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

Levy, like Stradling, was charged with bringing the county's technological systems into a new age when he joined Ulman's administration four years ago.

"It was this transition from being a technical leader to someone who is helping from an information-processing and decision-making standpoint," Levy said. "We've become much more than just the technology person. It's the person who's looking at how the business runs and makes sure that it's happening in the most appropriate way. When I see the other IT directors in the region, they really tend to have that focus as well."

In smaller counties, including Charles and Wicomico, the pay ranges from $56,660 to $148,000.

A decade ago, the job could run anywhere from $33,600 in a county like Caroline, where the population was just under 32,000 people, to $120,460 in larger Montgomery.

Rico J. Singleton, chief information officer for Baltimore City, makes $160,000 annually. William F. Ryan, information technology officer for Anne Arundel County, makes $139,730.

Public safety pays

Seven of the top 10 Baltimore County salaries are occupied by police and fire employees, with State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger at the top of the list. The list does not include Baltimore County Public Schools employees.

For the most part, the county's top five wage-earners have remained fairly constant over the last few years: Shellenberger, other high-level public safety officials and County Administrative Officer Fred Homan, with earnings that range from about $170,000 to $214,000.

Shellenberger, whose salary is set by law, made about $214,000 last year. He was followed by Police Chief Jim Johnson ($204,400), technology director Robert Stradling ($198,000), Homan ($190,000), and two police colonels, William Kelly, Jr. and Michael McCleese ($180,000).

The top 10 also include Fire Chief John J. Hohman ($175,800), police Col. Mary Kim Ward ($172,600), Assistant Fire Chief Mark Weir ($165,700), and eight police majors ($163,300). Budget and finance director Keith Dorsey, former County Attorney John Beverungen and former economic development director David Iannucci round out the list ($161,840).

"In Baltimore County, we hire the best, from the front-line emergency responders right up to the top brass, and the results speak for themselves," said county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler. "The people in our communities enjoy historically low crime rates and truly top-notch emergency response services."

Public safety employees account for more than half of the county workforce and $383 million payroll.

At Shellenberger's request, the legislature lowered his salary to $194,276 starting in January and capped his annual pay raise at 1 percent instead of 5 percent.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz got a bump in pay when he moved up from the council chambers. His salary increased to $150,000 annually from approximately $54,000 in part-time council pay the previous year. Council members earn $54,000 on average annually; the chairman earns about $60,000.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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