Runaway salaries for officials send a wrong signal to taxpayers

Massachusetts public officials - many of whom consider themselves overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid - are faring a lot better these days. With precious few exceptions, most personnel in the upper echelons of the commonwealth's executive and legislative branches have received compensation boosts, often of more than modest proportions, during the past two years. Many high-level officials of Boston's government, too, have not been overlooked.

In some instances, compensation increases were appropriate. Harder to justify , however, are the dimensions of some of the raises.

For example, Robert M. Spillane, Boston school superintendent, and James. F. O'Leary, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), have just been handed $10,000 raises, bringing their salaries to $70,000 a year.

This is $5,000 more than what Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn earns and $5,000 shy of what Gov. Michael S. Dukakis gets, for fulfilling their broader, more complex responsibilities.

It should be noted, too, that the annual compensation for the Boston school superintendent and the MBTA general manager has now increased a generous 40 percent in less than three years. During that time, the Bay State cost of living climbed less than a third that much.

While the recent pay boosts might suggest a superlative performance by Mr. O'Leary and Dr. Spillane, such an assumption is at least premature.

O'Leary and Spillane are undoubtedly hard-working and well-intentioned, but neither appears to have produced the kind of results which the taxpayers, who pay their salaries, have a right to expect.

Clearly there has been some improvement since Spillane came from New York in August 1981 to head a politically shackled, increasingly costly, and much-maligned Boston school system. Even so, there's still a long way to go - and there's no indication from the education community how soon, if ever, city schools will approach the bygone levels of academic excellence.

The Boston School Committee, nine of whose 13 members are newcomers to the city's public education front, must be extremely pleased with Spillane and his leadership to vote him a 16.5 percent raise.

A major argument for raising his salary was that other candidates for the superintendency who competed with Spillane for the job three years ago, were then or are now earning more than he has been paid since coming here. Mayor Flynn also appeared to be convinced by that argument, going along with the $10, 000 pay increase, even though a budget crunch is forcing the layoff of several hundred municipal workers.

Ironically, the Boston school superintendent makes more than John Lawson, the state commissioner of education. Since last June, Dr. Lawson's annual salary has been $65,727, and his responsibilities include overseeing public school systems across the commonwealth - not just that of a single community.

From the standpoint of sound fiscal management, the O'Leary raise is even less rational. This is his second pay increase since April 1981, when he took over the reins at the deficit-ridden Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

To suggest that the transit system has not improved under O'Leary's leadership would be inaccurate. Crime on MBTA facilities has been reduced in recent months, and trains are missing fewer trips.

But all-too-visible problems still trouble the T, although now to lesser degrees. Equipment breakdowns, schedules that make little sense, and discourteous personnel continue to hold down ridership, particularly on bus routes.

A bigger salary for the MBTA general manager, as able as he may be, can hardly be the answer to the problems. A better arrangement might be to have the general manager's compensation boosts tied to MBTA performance, including positive indicators of success such as increased ridership.

The man steering the T now earns $9,500 more than the state's secretary of transportation and construction, Frederick P. Salvucci, whose responsibilities include chairing the MBTA board of directors.

O'Leary, a lawyer by profession, came into state government as general counsel and undersecretary of transportation in the late 1970s. Three years ago he moved into the MBTA general managership. Sixteen months later his salary was raised from $50,000 to $60,000. Now it has soared to $70,000.

In fairness to O'Leary, the seven T directors (including Mr. Salvucci), and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who approved the pay increase, it should be noted that the chiefs at the Massachusetts Port Authority and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority already were earning $70,000 a year. Neither of these two agencies, however, depend on taxpayer dollars for their support, as does the T. More important, both are successful revenue producers.

The pay increase appears to send a wrong message - one of increased nonessential spending - to taxpayers.

Taxpayers living in cities and towns served by the T - who pay a substantial portion of the system's annual operating losses - have a right to expect good service and nary a penny of extravagance.

The O'Leary and Spillane raises - which amount to 40 percent more pay for each in less than three years - does nothing to instill confidence in government , especially at a time when state taxes are at an all-time high. If nothing else , they could trigger another round of compensation boosts within the ranks of state and municipal agency heads and top management.

Of even more concern to people who really want to hold down government costs - which ought to include Governor Dukakis and Mayor Flynn - the latest round of salary increase may encourage tougher-than-ever pay demands from school and T employee unions.

Spillane and O'Leary themselves ought to be aware of that possibility.

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