Gerber: TVA pay and public records

Gerber: TVA pay and public records

March 11th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

TVA has more than 12,000 employees and this week it seems like I've heard from most of them.

My inbox is overflowing with emails from Tennessee Valley Authority employees angry that the Times Free Press requested a list of what the federal utility pays its employees. They don't want the paper to publish the salary list on our website.

The newspaper's website lists the pay of nearly 127,000 public employees in Tennessee and Georgia, including 76 from TVA. In December, Business Editor Dave Flessner requested a list of all TVA employees, and the utility supplied it March 1.

"Muck raking," is how one TVA employee reacted to the newspaper's request. And he was kinder than some.

TVA employees offer a variety of reasons for not wanting their salaries published, privacy chief among them.

Most workers say they feel like the newspaper is sharing information that should be private.

"I was taught not to speak about money," the wife of a TVA employee told me, "so this seems wrong."

Another wrote that the list would "attract the attention of nosey, curious readers" who will look up the salaries of people they know who work at TVA.

"The publication of these salaries will cause embarrassment, irritation, resentment and hurt feelings for those involved," according to the letter writer.

Another said publishing the list will "set up unjustified envy and protest."

A form letter some TVA employees sent includes these reasons for asking us not to publish the salary list:

* Knowing what co-workers earn puts employees in an "awkward position" with their neighbors, friends, enemies, family and co-workers.

* Co-workers may be "put in a difficult situation" by knowing each other's salaries. "If I find out that 'Bob' makes $10,000 more than I do and I feel like I work harder than he does, how is my manager going to address this when I challenge that fact?" the letter asks.

* Ex-spouses of divorced TVA employees could use their salary to seek higher child support or alimony.

(Sorry, but if you're lying about your salary in order to pay less child support, that isn't the newspaper's problem. Same goes for the man concerned that he might have to tithe more if his minister finds out his salary.)

TVA employees have many, many reasons why they don't want their salaries known. But

like it or not, what each and every TVA employee earns is a public record.

That's why TVA handed the information to the newspaper after we requested it under the Freedom of Information Act.

Providing a list of names, job titles and salaries of all employees "is similar to the approach taken by the many federal and state agencies that routinely make such information available," Janet Herrin, TVA's chief administrative officer, said in a letter to employees. "... We understand that employees may prefer that salary levels remain private, but it is important that we try to maintain the level of transparency and fulfillment of disclosure policies that the public expects from us."

Anyone, or any company, can request the list of salaries, which ranges from custodians making $19,725 a year to the $3 million that President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Kilgore earns annually.

Because TVA has been under pressure to streamline its management and lower its debt of more than $24 billion, how it spends its money is newsworthy.

Consider this:

* TVA spends more than $1 billion a year of ratepayer money from the people of the Tennessee Valley on its salaries.

* TVA rates and spending on employee pay are not subject to outside review by state public service commissions or other regulators as in most states.

* TVA's executives are among the highest-paid federal employees in America, and its employees are arguably among the better paid in the region. In November, TVA spent $107 million on incentive bonuses for its employees - that's an average of $8,300 per employee at a time when most federal workers are under a pay freeze.

* The median TVA employee was paid $74,465 in base pay in 2011, not counting overtime and year-end bonuses.

Herrin's letter states that TVA's salaries are based on an assessment of compensation for similar work in this labor market.

"In setting salaries, our goal is to provide the competitive level of compensation necessary to attract and retain skilled and dedicated employees," she wrote.

Many TVA employees make the point that they have worked many years to reach their current compensation level, and certainly many have highly specialized degrees and do jobs that require a great deal of training. I don't dispute that.

We recognize the economic benefit that TVA has made to our region and the value of TVA employees' contributions to the community.

The Times Free Press isn't alone in publishing the salaries of public employees. Many newspapers across the country have databases of public employees' salaries on their websites.

In some instances, the data could help bring to light unjustifiable pay disparities or bring attention to the need to pay some workers more. The information also holds accountable public agencies that ought to be able to justify their employees' pay level to the public.

TVA workers also point out that TVA is not funded by taxpayers. But TVA, as a federally owned agency, enjoys many benefits.

Until two decades ago, TVA was funded by taxpayers and Congress initially funded the construction of TVA dams, power plants and other infrastructure.

Now TVA gets its money from ratepayers when they pay their monthly electricity bills.

As a federally owned corporation, TVA doesn't pay income, sales or property taxes like investor-owned utilities. (TVA does pay a fee known as "in-lieu-of-taxes," but that is only 5 percent of revenues, less than what most investor-owned utilities pay in total taxes).

TVA enjoys the implied backing of the federal government, which major rating agencies cite as key for giving TVA its top AAA rating for its bonds.

Above all, TVA is a public agency responsible for managing the Tennessee River and nearly 300,000 acres of public land, and Congress has given TVA a protected monopoly on supplying electricity in this region.

So the Times Free Press will add the list of TVA employee names and salaries to the searchable database in the Right2Know section of the newspaper's website.

We have listened to all the reasons why TVA employees do not want us to do this. We respect TVA employees and the work they do. In the end, we agree with TVA's Herrin that it's "important ... to maintain the level of transparency" the public expects.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to reader feedback@timesfreepress.com.